20 Feb 2011

#bombsindar: Gongo la Mboto, the media event, as told by Twitter

The explosions at Gongo la Mboto on Wednesday were a huge tragedy in human terms and a huge embarrassment for the government in general and the army in particular. But they also showed up the state of the Tanzanian media in a less-than-positive light. Coverage of what's probably Tanzania's biggest news event of the year has been disappointing.

For various reasons I wasn't able to follow TV or radio news directly, only indirectly via Twitter, Facebook and Jamii Forums. Journalism was once famously described as the first rough draft of history, but perhaps there's now an even earlier "zero draft" available: the twitter feed recording an event as it unfolds.

Here's how twitter's zero draft of history recorded the Tanzanian traditional media's response to the Gongo la Mboto explosions. It is not 100% comprehensive, but it includes the most significant tweets reporting or commenting specifically on the Tanzanian traditional (print and broadcast) media coverage of the blasts that I could find on the #bombsindar hashtag history.

Some tentative conclusions: Nobody shone, to the extent of feeding conspiracy theories. TBC and Channel 10 come out worst, slow to respond and broadcasting space-filling content (e.g. music videos, cartoons) at key moments in a time of crisis. They come in for significant criticism in the tweets above, including from such important political figures as January Makamba. ITV did a little better, and radio better still - particularly Radio One and CloudsFM. The print media did ok in terms of their core function: coverage in the press over the following couple of days, but did not make any effort to use their websites for more regular updates.

Covering breaking news in a time of crisis is not easy. Throw in the complications that the story broke at night, the widespread power cuts, the transport chaos and overstretched mobile phone networks in the immediate aftermath and the lack of information coming from either the army or from government, and the media's struggles in this case are very understandable. But there's still plenty that could have been done better.

If the TV stations had any plans in place for covering breaking news events, these plans failed. If they didn't have such plans, why not? The contrast between TBCs coverage of these explosions and their excellent coverage of the elections is striking - though that of course was a highly predictable event for which planning was much easier.

Overall, the traditional media's coverage of the explosions smacks of complacency. Poor pre-planning and no real striving to catch up. In comparison, coverage on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and Jamii Forums was miles ahead.

But let me give the last word to Shurufu (who else?), who summed up the media coverage with perhaps the most revealing tweet of this whole episode: