Citizen journalism comes to the fore
By Wu Jiao
Updated: 2008-06-13 07:40

As hundreds of reporters from home and abroad converged in quake-hit areas shortly after the May 12 temblor struck Sichuan province, Internet users nationwide also did their part to spread news of the disaster through cyberspace and help with relief work.

Zhang Qi, a student of the Culinary Institute of Sichuan who comes from the quake epicenter of Wenchuan, is exemplary of the citizen journalism seen in the past month.

 

The front pages of major newspapers on May 13, one day after the Sichuan earthquake. Clockwise from top left: Beijing Morning Post, Beijing News, China Daily and Chongqing Evening News.

Zhang had received news that all roads in and out of Wenchuan had been cut off by the quake and resulting landslides. Rescuers were also finding it difficult to fly into the city because of the mountainous terrain.

The student realized that an open field near her home could serve as an area for the rescuers' helicopters to land, so she posted news of the possible landing site on the Web.

Millions were already online then, trying to help in whatever way they could with relief efforts. Zhang's post was picked up and swiftly relayed to all major Chinese Internet forums.

Hours later, she received a phone call from rescuers asking for more information on the site - which later helped the air force find its way into Wenchuan to deliver much-needed aid.

Zhang's story illustrates how the Internet has played a major role in disseminating information to aid relief work for the deadly 8.0-magnitude quake, especially in the first 10 days of the disaster.

As of yesterday afternoon, the quake has left 69,159 dead, 374,141 injured and 17,469 missing.

New media is poised to continue its large role even as quake recovery efforts are carried out.

The country currently has 221 million Internet surfers, statistics show.

The use of blogs, BBS, chat rooms, image-sharing sites and other online portals are spreading fast and wide.

Added to this is the prevalence of text messages sent via cell phone.

In the past month, quake survivors, eyewitnesses, volunteers and Internet users have been using such technology to upload personal accounts, pictures, video clips, blogs and podcasts of the disaster onto the Web.

Information on the needs of quake victims, such as tents and food, has also been posted online to aid relief efforts.

"I stayed online for almost 20 hours a day, posting information I collected from the frontline and putting them on major news portals for people to read and offer their help," said Zheng Wei, a Peking University business student.

 

(clockwise from top left): Webpages of China Daily, YouTube, Tianya.cn and Baidu, websites which have been offering online services to provide a platform for netizens to do their part in quake relief efforts. Source: Internet

Zheng said his posts were often followed by much response from other Internet users.

The participation in quake relief by Internet users such as Zhang and Zheng have supplemented news coverage by traditional media - in turn contributing to more transparency in information sharing and public supervision, experts have said.

Yu Guoming, president of the Media Research Institute at the Beijing-based Renmin University of China, said Chinese netizens have become a major force in spreading information and can help fill the vacuum of traditional media.

"They've played an important role in communications in the rescue work," said Yu.

In a recent case, Internet users in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, shed light on an alleged misappropriation of tents for quake victims by Chengdu residents.

Based on leads from the Internet community, the authorities immediately probed the case and found loopholes in the delivery of the relief supplies.

The civil affairs official from Sichuan also thanked the Internet users and pledged to carry out more supervision on relief work.

Similarly, the Internet community has helped families look for their missing members following the quake.

Popular online communities such as Baidu and Tianya.cn set up posts to help look for the missing shortly after the disaster.

Many virtual communities also put up message boards for users to find relatives or friends missing from the quake and to offer help.

Following the quake, Internet giant Google China launched a search tool that enabled users to find information on the missing through bulletin boards.

Aside from helping to find the missing and aiding relief work, the Internet has also served as a major channel for people to mourn those killed by the quake and convey condolences.

Almost all the main Web portals in the country opened message boards for users to offer prayers and blessings to victims. More than 1 million people have left their prayers on Sina.com's site alone.

Hundreds of web portals have also followed agreements to bar any rumors that might hamper relief and rescue work, while concerned Internet users have voiced their opinions on a number of issues amid the disaster, from the distribution of relief funds to disputes between local officials and relief workers, to school building overhauls and the planning of post-quake reconstruction.

At the same time, traditional news media is seen to have matched the contributions of Internet users through their prompt and extensive coverage.

Within 20 minutes of the quake, Xinhua released a flash of the China Earthquake Administration confirming the huge tremor; about 10 minutes later, China Central Television (CCTV) commenced non-stop live coverage of the disaster and relief work.

Many say such coverage of a natural disaster in the country is unprecedented.

On July 28, 1976, when a 7.8-magnitude quake struck and flattened Tangshan in the early morning, which eventually claimed more than 240,000 lives and left millions more injured or homeless, Xinhua News Agency only mentioned that a quake had occurred in a city 180 km to the west of Beijing.

Foreign media has also been flocking to quake-hit areas. At least 550 journalists, including 300 foreigners from 114 overseas media agencies, reported from quake-hit areas in the first two weeks after the temblor struck.

The authorities at all levels are also providing first-hand and authoritative information on rescue efforts and damages. From the early stages after the earthquake hit, many government departments have been holding their own press conferences and giving updates on the situation in quake zones.

The media is seen to have kept readers and viewers up to speed with minute-by-minute updates, with several reports of the death and destruction reported by journalists on the ground.

Traditional news media is also said to have made full use of the Internet to expand their coverage.

Newspapers opened up websites devoted to quake coverage, with information ranging from self-protection methods to interviews with experts on the disaster.

Echoing the view of many others, 67-year-old Beijing resident Huang Qing said all these have made the media more authoritative and served to relieve the public of fear and panic after the quake.

(China Daily 06/13/2008 page7)