Hurricane Sandy highlighted fundamental changes in the way news is created, reported and consumed during a natural disaster. The biggest shift was also the most predictable: the effect of social media. The seamless integration of Twitter, Instagram and other apps into mobile devices allowed anyone with a smartphone to report breaking news. And indeed, these platforms provided the narrative for the first 48 hours of the storm. But all digital technology is dependent upon a functioning electrical grid. As power outages rolled up the East Coast, traditional media outlets took on renewed importance.
Three key media lessons emerged in the storm’s wake: (1) Social media is invaluable, but its limitations are significant. Twitter is useless when your phone is out of batteries. (2) Radio and other traditional news outlets still have an important role to play in emergency broadcasting. But their reach is amplified when they embed themselves within the social media environment. (3) During a disaster, the best news is local news. People will track down local information on whatever platform they can find it.
Unlike previous hashtagged natural disasters, #Sandy did not arrive unannounced. When the storm finally made landfall in the late afternoon on October 29th, hatches were battened and smartphones were charged. The resulting deluge of digital data almost rivaled the storm itself. Sandy was the top phrase on Facebook, where users speculated about the storm’s damage and provided updated information about their location and safety. More than 800,000 Instagram photos featured a “#Sandy” hashtag. Some 20 million tweets included storm-related terms. Our infographic below highlights these figures, and details the extent of the storm’s damage.
Social media’s comparative advantage during Sandy was considerable. Emergency information from government officials and news sources was disseminated as quickly as people could retweet it. Videos and images of the damage—from the collapse of a building’s facade in Manhattan to the flooding of the South Ferry subway station—went viral well before they hit CNN. And the absence of a mediating filter made the information feel personal and all the more urgent.
“Proud of Twitter right now,” the company’s co-founder Jack Dorsey tweeted around midnight. Dorsey had good reason to beam. The service remained lag-free throughout the disaster, and served as critical source of information for afflicted residents.
But Sandy also provided social media with some learning opportunities, by highlighting the medium’s known weaknesses. Though much of the information shared on Twitter (and to a lesser extent, Facebook) during the storm was accurate and useful, a former hedge fund analyst using the handle @ComfortablySmug became the Internet’s villain by deliberately spreading false information about power outages and flooding. Fast Company recently compiled a list of tips (and future tweaks) that could make social networks even more useful during emergency situations, and mitigate the danger of perfidious Tweeting.
Radio Free Atlantic
The number of times New York City users loaded their Twitter timelines from mobile devices peaked at about 9 p.m Monday, right around the time an explosion at the Con Edison transformer on the East River knocked out power for much of lower Manhattan. Power outages quickly spread as Sandy knocked out generators and power lines. The Internet itself took a big hit when the storm flooded data centers and took down several major websites—including The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and the Gawker network.
Smartphones and laptops were still functioning the next the day to receive reports of 8 million people without electricity, but the battery indicators were moving dangerously close to red. By the fourth day, when nearly 5 million households still remained powerless, Twitter and Facebook were mere memories from a forgotten digital age. Traditional communication platforms—broadcast news, pay phones, and especially radio—suddenly took on renewed importance.
“If everything else is gone, people still have a radio,” Tim Scheld, news director at WCBS-AM told the New York Daily News. “It’s not just information. It’s a connection.”
Most radio towers are built to withstand hurricane-strength winds, and backup generators let them operate 8 to 10 days without electricity. Local stations provided emergency broadcasting in the wake of the storm to audiences without any other reliable source of mass communication.
New Jersey’s “Hot Adult Contemporary” station WCZT switched to 24-hour storm coverage as the storm made land, broadcasting interviews with local government officials, live press conferences with Gov. Chris Christie, and updates from correspondents spread throughout the state. But that reporting was complemented with constant Facebook page updates and even text alerts.
Radio outlets thus not only filled in a communications gap during Sandy, they established themselves in Facebook and Twitter feeds and serve as ongoing sources of storm information. WCZT, for instance, is now providing residents with tips to avoid disaster related scams.
All (Streaming) News is Local
Local broadcast television stations also saw their web traffic spike. The websites for stations located in areas affected by Sandy experienced up to three times more traffic during the height of the storm than during a normal weekday.
AOL’s hyperlocal news sites also saw big visitor surges during the storm. The “Patch” network operates approximately 860 sites across the country, but has especially high penetration in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Page views for sites from affected regions were up 88 percent from the previous high.
Independent local sites, such as the Sheepshead Bites in Brooklyn and Baristanet in northeastern New Jersey, also reported record highs in traffic even when their coverage area was without power. In the wake of the storm, these sites functioned as both newspaper and bulletin board for local residents.
“Local is the most important information to consumers. At no time is that more apparent than in local natural disasters,” Patch CEO Jon Brod told Ad Age. “From a traffic and brand building perspective, there’s nothing more powerful.”
It will interesting to see how these developments are reflected in the next—and hopefully less deadly—disaster. At press time, there were still more than 700,000 customers without power in northeast, and the Nor’easter storm was on its way. Residents in the line of natural disasters clearly need to be prepared for life without reliable Internet or mobile service. Emergency broadcasting services need to reach across all platforms to the people most at risk.