Minneapolis Bridge Collapse & Citizen Journalism

Because I live in Saint Paul and Internet communication is my profession, I have watched the aftermath of the Minneapolis bridge collapse with the horror and sorrow of a Minnesotan who loves my community, but also as a communications professional who observes online behavior daily.

  I35W Bridge Collapse
Originally uploaded by

It was from that point of view, then, that I was endlessly fascinated with the role that citizen journalism and citizen generated media played in the coverage of the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

I did not have television news on Wednesday afternoon, a rarity for this news junkie. I did have the windows open and the first thing I heard that was related to the bridge collapse, though I didn’t know it at the time, were the sirens of the Saint Paul first-responders rushing to the scene.

Tweeting The Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

The first time I became aware that something was going on was on Twitter.

I missed from , a.k.a. , a local documentary filmmaker and , who got the Twitterverse scoop on the Star Tribune, . from posts that commented on the effects of the disaster, .

CLARIFICATION ON 8/5: The first actual tweet about the disaster that I read, was from Chuckumentary and that was because he was a Twitterer I was following. Minneapolis blogger Aaron Landry posted a tweet about the disaster before Chuckumunetary. Unfortunately, because of Twitter’s lack of data mining tools, it may not be possible to find out who had the first post.

Instant Messaging The Bridge Collapse

But I still didn’t know that the bridge had collapsed until a friend IMed me:

Friend: OMG!

Me: ??

Friend: are you watching tv?

And thanks to ‘s 24 hour coverage, it was on all night long.

Bloggers Provide Eyewitness Accounts Of The Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

The most fascinating citizen media was at a , a site frequented by many Minnesota bloggers. The thread was used  to discuss the disaster, disseminate news links, post “I’m okay” messages, and give first-person accounts. Such discussions .

Eyewitness accounts began appearing on local blogs:

And, of course, the blogosphere exploded worldwide with posts (, , ) about the disaster.

Email Discussion Lists About The Bridge Collapse

Minnesota has an extremely active online political environment, dating back to the early days of the web: In 1994, , a nonprofit dedicated to promoting electronic democracy, held the first -ever email debate in the nation.

E-democracy hosts many email discussion lists including one called . Some list members emailed their first-person accounts.

Members of the list , , and to ensure the members were safe.

The Minnesota Politics list .

Political Blogging About The Bridge Collapse

In light of our tradition of online political debate, it is no surprise that Minnesota has a vibrant political blogging community. The spin game exploded on both the and .

Podcasting The Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

Minnesota podcasters were busy, too. posted . posted a video of Congressman Oberstar discussing the collapse.

The aforementioned Chuck Olsen grabbed his video camera and went to the scene to .

Citizen Journalism Coverage Of The Bridge Collapse

More formal citizen journalism sites also covered the bridge collapse. The is run by local bloggers, freelance writers, and professional journalists and primarily covers politics from a left-of-center perspective. The Monitor’s coverage was as diverse and comprehensive as any mainstream media source, from reaction from political figures such as , to , to a .

UPDATED 8/6: Twin Cities Daily Planet is “conceived as an experiment in participatory journalism, built on a partnership between professional journalists and individual citizens.” Their coverage included a mix of professional and citizen journalism.

Citizen Photo Journalism Of The Bridge Collapse

has become a repository of absolutely of the disaster taken by ordinary citizens. The quality of most of these photos are extremely good:

  bridge collapse 7
Originally uploaded by intersubjectiv

Citizen Created Videos Of The Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

Like Flickr for photos, has become a repository of  video about the disaster. The video uploads were of several different varieties. Many people shot coverage of the bridge collapse on their television sets. Some people expressed their emotion by uploading slide shows or musical tributes to the victims. Some people uploaded webcam video of themselves telling the world their thoughts and opinions on the collapse.

And a lot of people uploaded the video the took from the scene of the bridge collapse. The following is a playlist I created containing all the citizen created video I could find:

As you can see, these citizen created video clips vary in quality but, perhaps because of their handheld nature, they do give you a far better sense of what it was actually like to be on the scene than the mainstream media television coverage does.

As of this writing, among the most viewed videos at YouTube are a (52,739 views), (33,252), and (25,785).

Among the most discussed videos is a with ranging from expressions of shock and horror and sympathy for the victims, to political blame, to a comment from someone who claims to have just passed over the bridge seconds before it collapsed.

Congressman Keith Ellison‘s office, the representative for Minneapolis, uploaded a House floor speech he gave responding to the tragedy:

Wiki-ing The Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

has become one of the most popular destinations for breaking news. This disaster was no exception. About three hours after the bridge collapsed someone devoted to the tragedy and a comprehensive, well-sourced document began to grow. And the following day with links to resources related to the tragedy.

Crowdsourcing – Mainstream Media Harnesses Citizen Journalists To Cover The Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

Most of the mainstream media encouraged their audiences to send them photos, videos and stories. The local , along with ;

KSTP TV showcased and video. One of the station’s reports featured broadcast-quality home video shot from an apartment overlooking the disaster. I was watching it on an HDTV and the picture quality was just as good as KSTP’s television coverage. Unfortunately, KSTP did not post the segment online.

Most of the local television stations departed from standard practice and streamed their coverage live.

The national news broadcasts asked for viewers’ reports as  well with mixed results. , while featured .

The newspapers asked for citizens help covering the event, as well.

The asked readers for and . Back in April, ; one of the changes the paper made to its web site was to add a bloglike commenting feature for each story.  That feature was a popular one in the wake of the bridge collapse, .

The , provided an outlet for their sorrow and sympathy with and pages, , and, most interestingly, highlighted their suddenly hyper-relevant . UPDATE 8/6/07:  The Star Tribune’s hyperlocal/citizen journalism project, buzz.mn, was also active, with the first post eliciting 136 comments.

The most deliberate integration of citizen journalism into traditional reporting, however, was showcased by with their effort. MPR put their citizen journalism effort front and center on the top of the page of their Minneapolis bridge collapse section with a link to the .

Not only did MPR ask listeners for their , , and , but they also to help shed light on the story and the social networking service, .

Social Networks During The Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

The social networking services were also used to communicate in the aftermath of the collapse.  Facebook was used as a way to check in on people and find information during the Virginia Tech shooting and it was used as a crisis communication vehicle this time, as well.

The bridge spanned between the University and Washington Avenue exits, either of which takes you directly into a part of the campus, so the college community was directly effected by the collapse. The editor of the University of Minnesota newspaper, the , told one interviewer that students were using their Facebook accounts to check in on their friends and loved ones.

Someone also created , which, at this writing, had more than 7,000 members.

Many members .

Searching For Minneapolis Bridge Collapse Information

As news breaks, the first thing people do is look for information about the news using the search engines.

The listed the search phrase “” as the second most popular the day after the bridge collapse and two days later “” joined it as the fourth most popular search. Later that day, both searches were pushed out by “,” at number one. The .

The will no doubt show a similar search spike for it’s next weekly report.

What Does This Mean For The Future Of News Media?

I’m not quite sure, exactly, but I think some things are clear from watching this all unfold.

  • Microblogging services like Twitter are quick response medium and, with their text messaging capabilities, served as a breaking news alert system. Because these services are designed to be used on mobile devices, they are ideal for sending concise, individual facts from the scene. During this crisis they also served as an “I’m okay” medium.
  • Citizen Journalists can be surprisingly competent reporters. I was struck by both the volume and the quality of the citizen reports. The eyewitness accounts were compelling with vivid details and more often than not lacked the melodrama to which amateur writing is often suspect. The citizen generated photos and video were equally compelling.
  • Is Sentiment Citizen Journalism? A lot of the citizen generated content was a simple expression of emotion. From slide show musical tributes to expressions of grief in discussion and comment forums, the emotional reaction was profuse. While it’s understandable, and it certainly does give you a sense of how widely the tragedy effected people, I would not say that content rises to the level of citizen journalism. Unless it is the grief of someone who was directly effected by the disaster, say a firefighter or a wife of a missing person, that type of content does little to provide insight or facts or contribute to the overall truth of the event.
  • We need a system to separate the wheat from the chaff. While much of the citizen journalism I consumed was superb, much of it also was not. Because of the volume of generated content, the disparate sources for it, and the varying quality, we need to find some way to bring the quality content to the fore and consolidate it for easy consumption. Maybe that would be a wiki page devoted to that task, or something similar to the aforementioned where the participants posted relevant links and quality content accreted as the story ran its course. Perhaps that system should be in the hands of semi-professionals such as the citizen journalism site. All of the above?
  • Crowdsourcing citizen journalism. The was a remarkable demonstration of collaborative citizen journalism, as thread members contributed bits and pieces of the story to create a far richer and more comprehensive picture than a single reporter could hope to provide. The to a lesser degree provided the same. Wikipedia provides a far more formal approach to collaborative journalism, with news junkies collecting facts from reports on the web or TV or radio or  and experts contributing their knowledge to aspects of a given story that might otherwise go unreported for lack of expertise.
  • Mainstream media still holds citizen journalism at arm’s length. With the exception of , almost all of the mainstream media treated citizen journalists as a resource for reporters to tap for their own reports, rather than treating citizens as co-equals who can tell stories themselves.
  • Visual Quality. This aspect of citizen journalism is most clearly evident in the photo journalism. The photos uploaded to Flickr are often of professional quality in terms of clarity as well as subject matter and framing. I was absolutely blown away by the quality of most of the photos. This may be atypical, however, as Minneapolis has a large and thriving artistic community. Maybe this was simply a result of having the good  fortune of an abundance of talented photographers in close proximity.The quality of the video was for the most part, poor by the standards we expect from television coverage. But a few were very good both in terms of clarity, professionalism, and subject matter. The aforementioned citizen video that KSTP TV ran struck me the most for its broadcast quality. I wonder if it was shot with a high definition digital video camera. As prices drop on HD video cameras, we are going to see more and more extremely high quality citizen video reports.
  • Flavor and Context. The eyewitness blog posts, the on-the-scene photography, and even the handheld and cell phone videos complete with their jerky motion and blurry, overcompressed images, all contribute far better than the mainstream media, to giving you a more accurate sense of being there. The videos, especially because of their amateur look, gave the viewer a powerful sense of the frantic chaos on the ground.
  • Immediacy. Had I been on Twitter a minute or two earlier, I would have known about the bridge collapse sooner than the Star Tribune reported it there. The ability to quickly upload photos and video online and post to blogs and discussion forums, gives an as-it-happens feel that only television can match. But television reporters have to travel to the scene to report. When citizen reporters are present near or at the event when it happens, or even a part of  it, with the right tools like an Internet connected cell phone, reporting can occur in real time.
  • Technological lags. A major flaw in the dissemination of citizen media is built into some of the distribution platforms, Flickr and YouTube specifically. While you can upload photos or video to them and see the upload display almost immediately on the site, users of the site won’t be able to find your content for about 24 hours unless they know exactly where to look. The problem is that there seems to be a day’s delay before your content becomes searchable by text or tags. That makes these platforms practically useless as a breaking news medium.

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