The tragic events taking place in Zanzibar in the early hours of Saturday morning are a national disaster, and three days of mourning have rightly been declared. Our thoughts are with those who lost lives or lost loved ones. May their souls rest in peace.
The disaster raises questions about regulation of maritime transport and accountability, though it is too soon to reach firm conclusions on what went wrong and too soon to see whether people will be held to account.
But we can begin assessing how the media handled the 24 hours after the crisis broke.
Like many people in Tanzania, I spent much of Saturday flicking between TV channels desperate for breaking news on the tragic events taking place in Zanzibar. I struggled. All I could find was imported soap operas, music videos, discussions on sporting issues, and eventually, live broadcasts of Miss Tanzania (see also Zitto Kabwe's thoughts on the appropriateness of this particular event going ahead at this time). There was almost nothing on any Tanzanian TV channel about the tragedy.
Friends (and the blogosphere) tell me that ZBC / TVZ on Zanzibar did much better, with live breaking news coverage throughout much of the day. And the international media, though they also struggled to get good pictures, was at least giving appropriate prominence to reporting on the disaster. But the Tanzanian mainland TV stations again showed a very disappointing unwillingness or inability to report breaking news - as lamented also by the Kigamboni MP Dr Faustine on his blog.
Following Facebook, Twitter, Jamii Forums and the blogosphere during the day, I considered repeating this blog's previous analysis of the mainstream media's performance on reporting the Gongo la Mboto tragedy earlier this year. There was certainly enough complaint on Twitter in particular to do something very similar.
But then I came across something more interesting than a simple repeat of the same complaints - clear evidence of social media's biggest weakness: unreliability and inaccuracy. Let me explain.
A few photos were doing the rounds online yesterday, purporting to be pictures of the sunken ship. Two in particular came to my notice:
The one on the left was posted very widely on twitter, blogs, facebook, etc., including on such reputable blogs as Udadisi, Mjengwa, Issa Michuzi, Wanabidii, and even the HabariLeo website (see below). I came across the second through @subinukta of wavuti.com, though she describes it as coming from the highly reputable (and very mainstream) Associated Press:
But then my suspicions were raised when I came across some other photos posted on facebook of the ship that had sunk, taken at various times in the past - on the left from Martin Walsh, on the right from @Hoyawolf on twitter.
Something didn't seem quite right. Comparing photos of a sunken ship with an upright one is not easy, but something looked wrong, I couldn't work out how the pictures match.
And then I found this post on storyful, confirming my suspicions. The sunken ferry pictures shown above come from a Filipino ferry (or possibly two) that sunk some time ago. To confirm this, I did a very simple image search on Google, finding very quickly a range of news websites with stories and pictures that back up storyful's conclusion, clearly showing the same (or very similar) pictures:
France24, Northern Echo, and the bizarrely-named Monsters and Critics.)
In short, while the mainstream media, TV in particular, may not have done well in it's (lack of) breaking news coverage of the disaster, social media also proved disappointing. Fact-checking these photos was not difficult and there was plenty of reason to doubt them from the beginning. And yet they went round and around the net, including on sites that take news seriously, and will probably continue to do so for some time to come.
This problem was not limited to social media, as HabariLeo (from the time-stamp on their article above, it seems they posted a daylight photo of a night-time disaster before dawn had even broken?) and the Associated Press seem to have made exactly the same mistake. But it was mostly a social media problem.
This blog has said it before and will say it again, until and unless we social media enthusiasts find a way of improving our record when it comes to accuracy, we cannot expect to be taken seriously as a news source.
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UPDATE: 12/9/2011, 2.30pm
I have finally been able to get hold of copies of some of Sunday's newspapers, to see how they reported the tragedy, and in particular, whether they printed any of the unrelated pictures. The Guardian, Nipashe, Majira, Citizen and Mwananchi all avoided the picture, but Mtanzania included it on their front page. Along with HabariLeo on their website, of course, that means at least two papers failed on the fact-checking as well.