We are entering a new era of real-time reporting in American journalism as public surveillance increases, crowdsourcing becomes commonplace and technology becomes widely available.
On May 20, the horrific tornadoes that devastated the community of Moore, Okla., a suburb of Oklahoma City, played out live for all to see, a reality show gone wrong for my hometown that transfixed the nation and caused presumably billions of dollars of damage and loss of life. But this storm was different from other recent crises in America. The twisters had all the elements of a crisis – the lead up, the event and the aftermath. It was captured by citizens, by photojournalists and, as the New York Times reported, by local weathermen who gave play-by-play and color commentary that is usually reserved for Marv Albert and Hubie Brown this time of year during the NBA playoffs.
We never saw the moments leading up to the Boston Marathon attack. We only captured on surveillance the act and the aftermath – much of it hours after the event. The Arab Spring played out via tweets and YouTube posts, but not truly “live.” Even the killing of Osama bin Laden was announced after the fact, if only minutes. But the Moore tornado unfolded before our eyes. This real-life drama played live for the entire nation (and presumably world) to watch. Not since 9-11 have we seen the act of horror as it happened. Take Jon Welsh from NBC affiliate KFOR (as reported in the New York Times);
Once the tornado abated, the helicopter pilot, Jon Welsh, turned back to survey what had been lost. He pointed out a landmark for local viewers, Veterans Memorial Park, and said starkly, "It's gone." Nearby was a housing development. “Completely gone.” Mr. Welsh’s cameraman panned to the south, toward more homes. “Gone.”
Two minutes later he could see a school in the distance. “Oh, my God,” he said, grasping for words. Mr. Welsh called out for the police while he tried to identify the cross streets for what turned out to be Plaza Towers Elementary School, one of at least two schools decimated by the storm. The cameraman’s close-up showed adults running toward the rubble.
Viewers were on the edge of their seats. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin took to Fox News during the tornado’s approach and conversed for a number of minutes with the studio about the tornados that hit the state the evening before on May 19 and the history of these types of events in central Oklahoma. All the major cable networks went wall-to-wall with live coverage. There was rampant content creation and speculation on what might happen in the coming minutes. Locally, the weathermen – treated like cult heroes in Oklahoma City – gave detailed descriptions using teams of on-the-ground reporters, radar, citizen journalists and helicopters to keep people safe.
Our Saxum team watched as the storm advanced on our homes and those of our friends, family and neighbors, some 10 miles from our office. We watched the entire event, only interrupted by the occasional hail pinging our roofs or the tornado sirens intermittently going off. We checked Twitter, called loved ones and waited.
Then something interesting happened. The tornado dissipated, the news channel chopper turned around and the recovery effort immediately began. There was no commercial break. Journalists and citizen journalists alike began to report the news the best way they knew how: in the case of weathermen, on television, and in the case of ordinary citizens, on Twitter and Facebook. The communities watching the drama unfold seemed completely platform-agnostic as tweets from ordinary Oklahomans went viral, carrying as much influence as the live network feed.
The aftermath was deeply moving. We were consuming part three in this made-for-TV tragedy. Sentiment on Twitter went from deep concern, to terror, to disbelief, to organization, to resolve, to resilience – all in a span of four hours. I’ve never seen anything like it. More amazing was that if someone in upstate New York was inclined to follow and converse online about this tragedy as it progressed, they could have been engaged just like me.
Saxum is proud to be based in Oklahoma. Within minutes after the devastation, we saw individuals and businesses, many of which were our clients, take action. We immediately set up a war room to follow the story, interface with clients, update campaigns, brainstorm ideas and run through our standard crisis communications protocol. Stories of heroism and generosity are already emerging, as they always do, proving “The Oklahoma Standard” is stronger than ever.
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Renzi Stone is CEO of Oklahoma City-based Saxum.