The Washington Post

Japan earthquake shows how bad news travels fast, and first, online

My introduction to the awful news about the earthquake in Japan came not from the radio or the Web, but from my phone. As I often do, I woke it up a few minutes after doing the same myself, glanced at my e-mail and then flipped over to the phone’s Twitter app.

I quickly began reading dozens of updates about a stunning, unexpected event. The first ones had arrived at about 1:30 in the morning EST via tweets from nonstop tech blogger Robert Scoble, who was passing on some tweets from Japan: “7.9 earthquake strikes northern Japan ... tsunami warning issued” and “wow, that was a crazy earthquake... ran out of the building. 7.9 at epicenter..”

Other tweets and retweets noted the increasing disaster and linked to photos and videos already being uploaded while critiquing news coverage. Among international news networks, the BBC and Al-Jazeera English won more compliments on Twitter than CNN for their initial responses.

But none of those had the same force as first-person observations such as “Terrible earthquake hit Japan. The skyscraper rocks slowly. So scared.” or another witness’s description of the quake as “hard enough to make me nauseous while sitting down.”

There’s much to be said about the virtues of a communications service that lets you publish to the world from any phone that can send a text message. (Media critic Jeff Jarvis suggested Friday morning that Twitter users adopt a new symbol to identify first-hand accounts: an exclamation-point “witness tag” instead of the pound sign of its hashtags, such as “!jpquake.”)

Since those first panicked tweets, the Web has been filling up with video clips that make clear exactly what an earthquake looks like as it happens (YouTube now has a page dedicated to them); Wikipedia has a growing and extensively hyperlinked article; and Google now tops search results with information about the quake and has set up a special page listing resources and collecting updates. And, not least, news organizations such as The Washington Post are doing their part to tell the story.

All of this represents an enormous upgrade over the options available the last time a quake this devastating hit Japan--the 1995 Kobe quake. I wrote a short piece for The Post then about the Internet’s success in helping survivors relay first-hand accounts, and how that represented a new development in people’s responses to disaster:

“At the center of the disruption, people at the Kobe City University of Foreign Studies have placed several pages about the disaster on the World Wide Web, the Net’s warehouse of linked text, pictures and sounds.” (Note the stilted language used to describe the Web to print readers--The Post itself didn’t publish on the Web at the time.)

The tools we have to witness the news have greatly advanced from those available in 1995, and even since more recent tragedies such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the 2004 tsunami. We can tune in from afar and get all the sights and sounds we care to digest, and do so from just about anywhere with a wireless signal.

But one thing hasn’t changed: After seeing and hearing all that, there’s not much we can do if we’re far away from a disaster but click a “donate” button and hope that people there are okay.


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