With few correspondents on the ground in the region, the earthquake that ripped Haiti apart last week had UK news broadcasters scrabbling to the internet for the story, where the immediacy provided by social media websites dominated the early coverage.
With landline and mobile phone lines down, TV newsdesks hungry for information were often unable to directly contact aid agencies in Haiti and assess the impact of the earthquake which struck the country last Tuesday afternoon.
With few dedicated TV crews in the region and a lack of Caribbean freelance staff, the UK’s leading TV news outlets were able to report on events thanks to messages, pictures and footage that quickly spread across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Social media helped establish facts and report events as UK broadcasts rushed to get their crews and equipment to the scene.
The Twitter group tagged ‘#relativesinhaiti’was instantly flooded with traffic, while ‘#rescuemehaiti’was being used both to direct rescue efforts to the places where trapped survivors have been located and as a valuable tool for news crews.
Ed Fraser, senior programme editor for Channel 4 News, told Press Gazette: “We had a 24-hour period where we just had to cover the story with what information we could garner.
“For the first time really, certainly in online terms but also for broadcast, Twitter was one of those vehicles which had a life of its own.
“It gave us real time information as to what was going on the ground.”
Haitians began sending messages to Twitter providing images, video and insight which official sources could not provide.
Channel 4 News and other broadcasters set up their own micro-blogging sites to enable Haitians and journalists to post rolling updates.
Julian March, executive producer for Sky News Online, said: “I was quite surprised that there was an active Twitter community in Haiti. They were instrumental in those first hours.”
One of the biggest challenges broadcasters faced was verifying whether images and messages they received were genuine, Fraser said, as they monitored online activity across social media websites.
Where social media tools proved vital in establishing information a lack of more sophisticated broadcasting equipment or working phones led several broadcasters to run interviews via the internet service, Skype.
One of the first live interviews via Skype was from Haiti at 1:25am on Wednesday with Haitian radio journalist Carel Pedre detailing events to Sky News from his home while the earthquake’s aftershocks were still being felt.
Newsdesk staff had found Pedre after he posted pictures on Facebook offering his service to help those abroad make contact with loved ones. ITV News also used Skype to interview Pedre for its bulletin.
BBC News turned to Skype to make contact with people at the scene as it quickly emerged as a vital tool for live news broadcasting in the hours immediately following the disaster.
Jon Williams, BBC World News editor, said: “Previously, we would have received text messages and bits of video.
“While telephones and mobile phones are down, this is probably the first real story where Skype has come into its own in terms of people providing their own live eye witness reports.”
Getting reporters into Haiti
As the only UK broadcaster to have a Caribbean-based reporter, Williams said the BBC was “well set” to respond to the story.
BBC Carribbean correspondent Nick Davies reached the stricken area hours after the earthquake hit by joining the Jamaica Police first response team as they flew into Haiti.
John Irvine, ITV News Washington correspondent, and his production team managed to reach Port-au-Prince the day after the disaster.
The BBC’s Davies was joined by Miami reporter Andy Gallagher and New York correspondent Matthew Price, who gave his first live report from Haiti within 24 hours of the disaster.
ITV News now has presenter Mark Austin co-presenting its bulletins from Haiti with Bill Neely, international editor, reporting on conditions in hospitals and scenes of looting and Geraint Vincent following the British search and rescue units.
Sky News has flown in Washington correspondent Robert Nisbet and chief correspondent Stuart Ramsey, as well as Dominic Waghorn, Middle East correspondent. The BBC and Channel 4 News similarly now have presenters on the ground.
“Communication is a terrible problem,” Williams explained. “And we have had to ensure that everyone going in has had their own supply of water and food as well as security.”
Broadcast teams faced the common challenge of relaying footage back to their countries of origin.
Immediately following the quake ITV News relied on using agency and other broadcasters’ satellite dishes before it was able to get its own equipment into the country to relay its feeds, live interviews and presenting pieces back to London.
Williams told Press Gazette it took the BBC three days to drive a satellite dish 156 miles from Santo Domingo in neighbouring Dominican Republic to the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
The BBC now has its own satellite uplink and 30 staff have taken over a hotel in the centre of Port-au-Prince.
As security is a major concern, the hotel is guarded and subject to a lock-down during hours of darkness, Williams said.
Accommodation has been a problem for the ITV News crew, a spokesman told Press Gazette, and they have been staying in tents.