How Instagram shaped the news during Hurricane Sandy

Features 18:47, Nov 05 2012

Was it a bad idea for news organizations to use Instagram during Hurricane Sandy?

Instagram has come a long way from being a social network filled with photos of food, cats, sunsets, clouds and feet at the beach or pool. When it comes to breaking news and social events, Instagram has become an invaluable tool -- and its power became more clear than ever during Hurricane Sandy.

When the hurricane started making its way to the Northeast, cities began shutting down and public transportation was put to a halt. Streets became dark and empty, and citizens huddled indoors to stay warm and dry. For many of us in the Northeast, hours passed and we had no idea what was going on outside, since few of us had electricity and heat.

But for those of us who charged up our gadgets before power grids started shutting down, we had a window to the outside world. Soon, social networks like Instagram started filling with images of the disaster happening.

Several brave -- and maybe a little stupid -- New Yorkers made their way into the streets and onto beaches and started documenting what they saw. Within seconds, we saw what they saw via Instagram. My Instagram feed started filling with images of water washing over lower Manhattan, beaches buried in seawater and cars floating out of underground parking lots. Streets were dark, roads were empty and flooding, and suddenly, my Instagram feed looked more like a stream of the apocalypse.

Big news organizations relied on these images because of Instagram’s speed of distribution and the accessibility. Instead of sending photojournalists into the field, the images were coming in by the dozens, maybe even hundreds. Plenty of citizens who were already on the scene took to their smartphone cameras and were posting images on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The sheer speed and reach of these images went far beyond what traditional news organizations are equipped for. It was brilliant. And dangerous.

But as soon as big news sites like The New York Times and Time magazine started using photos from Instagram, critics and the like were already calling it a mistake. In fact, Time decided to use an Instagram photo for one of its magazine covers, perhaps proving that the message is more powerful than the image quality. This is where we start talking about what Instagram is or isn’t, and whether it’s an appropriate journalistic tool or just another dumb app for taking sandwich photos. I think it’s both and so much more.

Anyone who claims that the filters and modified aesthetics make an Instagram image a lie is full of themselves. When you see a photo of a man missing an arm, a soldier waiting for battle or a street flooding with cars, a vignette and fake Polaroid border aren’t going to take away from that message. In the case of Hurricane Irene, I didn’t think twice about whether the person who took snapshots used a filter or border. Most of the images I saw from that night invoked an OMG-I-can’t-believe-this-is-real feeling.

To watch Hurricane Sandy unfold like that is unreal, and 10 years ago something almost entirely impossible. Other than watching news reporters attempting to remain standing in high winds and rain, we wouldn’t see any real damage until the following day, or even the day after that. It took time for photographers to get out onto the scene and get images back to their editors and photo editors, who would then sift through hundreds of them, picking the best ones to publish. No, with Instagram, it was all happening in real time and was arguably, more powerfully than the traditional method.

I’m not saying that Instagram makes photojournalists obsolete. In fact, Instagrammers are to professional photojournalists what amateur bloggers are to professional reporters. These days, you really need both as they complement one another. Photojournalists can follow up with images of far better quality to give citizens a better look at things once the nightmare has died down. But during that nightmare, it’s also important to see what’s going on at several places at once. Don’t go here, it’s flooded. Our houses are being washed away, we need help. If you haven’t evacuated, leave now --water is rising to dangerous levels. These were the messages carried by the powerful Instagram photos that were taken and shared to hundreds of thousands of people in real time.

Ultimately, time has proven that Instagram is a valuable social networking and reporting tool. Whether it’s in the hands of an amateur or a professional, Instagram can deliver powerful news with the speed and scope that news organizations could only dream of just a few years ago. And sure, sometimes the food and cat photos can be a little ridiculous, but as a whole, I’m glad Instagram is here. Regardless of what insecure photojournalists say about it.

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