I spent the better part of my Wednesday evening following media coverage of the tornado outbreak in Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, & Georgia. So far, 127 tornadoes have been confirmed, the death toll is at 54-and-climbing, and the devastation is immense and widespread. Online video was my primary method of following the storms---live news streams, YouTube clips, TwitVid videos, etc.---and this event proves the raw power and blinding speed of social video.
I'll warn you right now: this isn't going to be a traditional article. It's a little stream-of-consciousness. I've been amazed tonight at what social media has been able to show me regarding real-time news, and I wanted to share.
We had storms where I live in Tennessee tonight, but nothing like what went on south of us. On my drive home, I heard an offhanded remark by a radio DJ about a tornado in Tuscaloosa he'd seen video of online. It was the first I'd heard of it. He sounded impressed by the storm's size, so as soon as I got home I pried open the laptop and went searching for the clip.
The Tornado Videos
The first thing I did was search Twitter for various keyword combinations, which led to a host of videos (and more Tweets than I could hope to keep up with).
The first decent-quality video I found was this one:
That structure at the top of the frame is Bryant-Denny Stadium, where the Alabama Crimson Tide play college football. The tornado is beyond the stadium, which should give you some idea of its size.
Then I found a couple more clips of the same tornado at different stages on its march through Tuscaloosa:
The CBS affiliate in Tuscaloosa caught the tornado during a live broadcast, and the while it's great footage, the weatherman seems a bit out of his element (tornadoes of this size aren't exactly common in Alabama):
But then I found one of the most frightening videos of the evening, from a college student with too close an encounter with the beast. It's downright terrifying, mostly because you can't really tell which direction the tornado is going:
The ABC network affiliate in Tuscaloosa was streaming their coverage live on UStream. You can find a replay of some of their coverage here.
I stayed with their UStream feed for a while, as the storm headed straight into Birmingham. But once the tornado left Tuscaloosa, they didn't have great camera coverage anymore.
So I repeated the entire process all over again, combining Twitter, YouTube, UStream, and other sources in an effort to continue following the story with video. By the time the twister reached downtown Birmingham, it was a mile and a half wide:
That same tornado kept rampaging across four different states over the next few hours.
So What's Your Point?
Five years ago... I couldn't have done what I did last night. I would have been stuck using cable news or newspaper websites as my only sources for current event information like this. But through the near-instantaneous distribution power of social media, I was able to follow the story. And because we're in the age of affordable high-quality video equipment... I was able to follow it through video, some of which was even live.
And no matter how hard they try, CNN is never going to get this kind of video to us as quickly as a kid with a smart phone can. And they can't get the unique and varied angles and shots that can be crowdsourced through social media.
Part of the public's interest in the storm is it's rare nature--outbreaks like this are extremely uncommon. But part of it is the awe and spectacle of nature. And that demand isn't going away. I think the public would have been just as interested in this kind of footage ten years ago had the technology to create and disseminate it existed. They'll be interested in it the next time nature flexes its muscle. The viewers are getting savvy about using the web to find their news, and they've learned that the corporations don't always have all the best content anymore. If they're not careful, traditional media outlets may never catch back up to them--though it is impressive to see the local affiliates embracing live streaming video and social media.
The future of news video isn't any one great source like CNN or AP... it's the aggregation of all sources--professional and amateur--through the use of social media. The next king of news won't be the company with the most elegant iPad interface... it'll be the company that figures out a way to harness the power of social video and pull the best and most well-rounded content altogether in one source.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the tens of thousands of people impacted by these storms. I hope--and believe--that the increased attention online video has brought to the tornadoes will also bring increased support in the form of assistance and donations for the victims.
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