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Five Things I Am Learning from #JapanQuake, #tsunami, #prayforjapan

By Sree Sreenivasan | March 15, 2011 3:29pm
Houses are in flame while the Natori river is flooded over the surrounding area by tsunami tidal waves in Natori city, Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan, March 11, 2011, after strong earthquakes hit the area.
Houses are in flame while the Natori river is flooded over the surrounding area by tsunami tidal waves in Natori city, Miyagi Prefecture, northern Japan, March 11, 2011, after strong earthquakes hit the area.
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AP Photo/Yasushi Kanno, The Yomiuri Shimbun

By Sree Sreenivasan

DNAinfo Contributing Columnist

I wrote last month about 5 Things I've Learned from #Egypt, #Tunisia, #Libya and received feedback from several readers looking for more such lessons from events around us.

Now I'm back with things I'm learning from the midst of the Japan earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster story. They are compiled from my trying to keep up with the story (stories, actually), from talking to Japan experts and other journalists and from curating a list of Japan-related resources at http://bit.ly/japansoc

1. THIS IS THE MOST DOCUMENTED EVENT IN HISTORY: As we know, most Japanese have always been early adopters of technology and, as a result, we have been able to see more, hear more and be horrified more (and faster) than ever before. I still remember seeing grainy, black-and-white store surveillance-cam video of the 1995 Kobe earthquake — the first time I'd seen extensive quake footage like that. Fast forward to 2011 and you are seeing all kinds of full-color, clear-audio footage, along with millions of tweets, postings and photos. And, unlike the 2004 tsunami or even Hurricane Katrina in 2005, services like YouTube mean that we can revisit the videos in ways we could never have before. 

Dorian Benkoil (@dbenk), a former AP correspondent in Tokyo, captures this well in a blog post comparing the 1995 quake and the current one: "Today, sitting in my living room in New York, I felt I had more information at my fingertips than I did then in the AP bureau in Tokyo." Another friend, Bill Egbert, send out an e-mail highlighting two videos, taken from different vantage points. One is this video taken almost at street level as the water gained momentum; the other is this New York Times interactive graphic that shows stunning before/after Google satellite photos of the damage.

2. KEEPING UP WITH THE NEWS TAKES SMART USE OF TRADITIONAL AND SOCIAL MEDIA: I was feeling that way already during the Mideast protests, but I'm absolutely convinced of it now. It's impossible to understand all that is happening in Japan without being a smart consumer of TV, news sites and blogs along with social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. Skip one or more of those and you'll miss critical threads of this fast-moving, constantly evolving story. For some aspects, such as breaking news or discovering stories you would otherwise have missed, Twitter is critical. To get a sense of the scene, nothing beats live video, without or without a journalist doing a standup. To understand how those nuclear reactors are working — or not — nothing beats a smart interactive graphic (like this one from the Times).

3. JOURNALISTS ARE FAR BRAVER THAN YOU THINK: Watching from afar, I have been struck, yet again, by the courage of journalists who choose to cover dangerous stories while the rest of us hang back. The journalists who were already based in Japan are doing a phenomenal job under trying personal circumstances, opting to stay when some could easily leave (same for those already in Egypt, Libya, etc). Add in the American and other journalists getting on planes, heading in as thousands of others head out, and you have a sense of the "crisis reporter gene" that lives in only the bravest amongst us. We should appreciate, at a time when some people choose to run-down the value of professional reporting, that it takes cash, commitment and courage for journalists to get the stories we need from places like Japan. How many non-scientists would, knowingly, head into an area where a nuclear facility has had an explosion or two? And for all the alleged glamor of TV, Anderson Cooper's plaintive question to a nuclear expert, "Should I get out of here?" shows you how unusual people like Cooper and his crew are.

4. GOOGLE STILL COUNTS: Google isn't as buzzworthy as it used to be. Companies such as Facebook, Foursquare, Groupon and Apple dominate tech news these days. Its attempts to play in high-profile social media, including Google Buzz and Google Wave, have fizzled. But this crisis has shown the role that Google plays in our lives: the smart, reliable, inventive friend who we can count on in times of need. It's not as exciting as our new, hipper friends, perhaps, but when we need it, Google is always there. Only a company of its scope and international connections could have pulled together the Japan People Finder almost instantly. By 8:27 a.m. on Friday, there were 4,900 records on the service, families and friends trying to reconnect; 72 hours later, on Monday morning, there were 149,400 records. Only a company that has a philanthropy arm filled with Google DNA could create a resource as useful and timely as Google.org's Crisis Response Center. Note the mention of the Google resources in this official message from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo this morning as well as the recommendation that people use social media and SMS to communicate during this crisis (put up, appropriately enough, on Google Docs, by West Benter @wbenter). And that's not even counting the hundreds of millions of web and news searches we all have been doing to understand developments, jargon and more.

5. WE SHOULD ALWAYS CHECK A PERSON'S SOCIAL-MEDIA UPDATES BEFORE MAKING A REQUEST: Before you reach out to a business acquaintance or stranger and make a request of any kind, take a minute to check that person's Twitter feed and/or Facebook status and/or Gmail chat status and/or Foursquare check-in — if they have any of these, of course. The reason is that you can likely get a sense of what the person is working on, and where their head is, with a quick glance at any of those updates.

This won't work for everyone, but I think eventually, this will be standard operating procedure. Those updates are, in effect, what people want you to know about them, so why not take a look before you ask for a favor. Here's what I mean. Starting with the moment I woke up on Friday to the quake news, I have been posting nonstop and asking for help in compiling http://bit.ly/japansoc (only in part because I was born in Japan). One PR person, who was going to contact me that day to follow-up on a pitch, saw what I was doing and jumped in to help with suggestions and links, even though they were of no use to her clients. Another PR person, completely oblivious (not just to my Twitter feed, but to the magnitude of the crisis at hand), called me to pitch me some inane idea about a topic I had no interest in at that moment. Someone else came to see me Friday to discuss job-hunting tips without realizing that the best thing he could do to make an impression would have been to offer to help me with my instaproject.

I say all this not because I am important or busy, but because this idea of smarter favor requests is the way the world is heading.

I'll end my column the way I have been signing most of my tweets: #PrayForJapan.

What do YOU think? Post your comments below via Facebook or on Twitter @sree.

Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia journalism professor, shares his observations about the changing media landscape.