As the recovery effort in Joplin, Mo. continues in the wake of the devastating tornado on Sunday, various major news networks have since caught on to the magnitude of the story, and are now doing in-depth coverage of it for the benefit of those affected in the area, and abroad. But on Sunday night, when the tornado first hit, the coverage was practically nonexistent, and those seeking the latest info went to Twitter Search, Facebook, and other status and real-time networks in droves.
Though Twitter is usually my first source for finding or discovering breaking news, this time I happened to be flipping around on the flat screen to catch the breaking story of the direct tornado hit on Joplin, a densely populated town of more than 50,000 people. CNN anchor Don Lemon was conveying the extreme devastation that was unfolding, with a sense of urgency that was not at all understated. He interviewed a Red Cross worker who had estimated that as much as 75% of Joplin was literally wiped off the map. He spoke with a newspaper photographer who had captured some early images of the devastation. People were scrambling, communications were down, gas lines busted all over the city (and are still leaking at the time of this writing), and the mobilization of a major recovery effort was underway. It was apparent early on that this was a devastating tornado of historic proportions.
So what did CNN, Fox News, and others do as this story broke? After a short amount of initial coverage, CNN then aired a one-hour special on
Mel Gibson. Donny and Marie interviews were featured on multiple major news programs, and Mike Huckabee went on with the program as usual. Geraldo was covering the Caylee Anthony
story. My local news channels in Dallas did what all local news channels do: focus on the local area only, with barely a mention of the tornado.
The only network that covered this story for the rest of the night was the Weather Channel.
CNN went back to the "breaking news" of the tornado coverage, except there was one major problem: CNN played a
repeat of the earlier breaking news broadcast with Don Lemon, without so much as a disclaimer that this was "recorded earlier." To add insult to injury, CNN then played
another repeat of the earlier Mel Gibson documentary.
With all of the neglect paid to this breaking story by the major cable networks, many other news seekers and I sought out information in Twitter Search that night, following the Joplin hashtag. There, people were sharing their own photos of the devastation. While Lemon was proclaiming his newspaper photographer interviewee as having captured the "defining photograph of this tragedy," there were many other nonprofessional photos on Twitter that told a better story of what was happening, as it was happening.
People were also looking for other people, as all communications were down. Volunteers and emergency response teams were mobilizing. One Twitter user had found three young children wandering alone in Joplin, and was trying to help find their parents. Another user suggested that he had one of the children's names wrong, as the child may have been too small to pronounce it correctly, and gave alternative names that might help place the children with their parents.
Many other Twitter users were also wondering why the major networks had all but effectively blacked-out this story. A few sample tweets:
- marklindsay: "I cannot
believe @CNN staying w/Mel Gibson feature instead of covering sad scary story in #Joplin. #epicfail"
- compalicious "Way to go @CNN. Tornadoes rip apart Joplin, MO & you run a special on Mel
Gibson at 11pm? #WTF?"
- Chilly43 "back to important stuff. CNN cuts from Joplin to Mel Gibson."
- Adrian_E: "Joplin, Missouri has been wiped off the map, but CNN thinks Mel Gibson is more important. #notwinning"
- michellew_: "The town of Joplin MO is leveled by a tornado and CNN has a show about Mel Gibson on? Huh? A different kind of disaster I guess."
- JillVanWyke: "Whoa @CNN, did you really cut off #joplin
coverage to air a repeat of "The Mel Gibson Story"? What a disgrace."
- juliet316: "So FOX would prefer Geraldo cover the oversaturated casey anthony mess & not an unfolding tragedy that's taken 30+ so far? #Joplin" http://twitter.com/#!/juliet316/statuses/72538463051857920
- rosethistleart: "Donny and
Marie is on @cnn now? I love them, but . . . there's a city with major damage called #joplin.
Remember when news were pirhannas?"
And so on.
It became clear that Twitter (and Facebook) was the place for real-time news, and that this type of real-time commentary was why major networks rely on status social search updates as a side stream while they report the news. If the majors had stayed live during the disaster, they would have done well to report what was coming off the Twitter feed. Even Google Real Time search did a great job of showing top shared sites to get good information.
So clearly, there was a side search and social conversation going on about the major network's treatment of this critical story. Since none of the major news outlets have responded to the people on Twitter, I'll restate the question. Can anyone from Fox, CNN, HLN, and MSNBC explain their rationale for going to Donny and Marie, instead of Joplin? A lot of people would like to know, and they're still talking about it.