The Convergence Newsletter
The Convergence Newsletter

From The Newsplex at the University of South Carolina

Vol. IX No. 5 (June 2012)

When emergency news breaks, how journalists can join the conversation

By Chris Frear

When an emergency happens, journalists are likely to find the community already has started a digital conversation. As Carrie Brown-Smith of the University of Memphis found, non-journalists often quickly create Twitter hashtags to report, share, and discuss emergency information. Her findings provide useful insights into how news media can embrace participatory journalism and respond to the community's concerns.

We're getting closer to the 11th Annual Convergence and Society Conference that will address the emerging changes in the journalism industry following the global financial crisis. The conference will explore the frontiers of both convergent journalism and enterprising business journalism with an array of panel discussions, essays, demonstrations, and research presentations. See below for details.

For nearly a decade, The Convergence Newsletter has offered a forum for research and discussion about digital convergence in all its varied and constantly changing aspects.

The newsletter provides a place to describe front-line issues for practitioners and for professors training a new generation of reporters and editors. The newsletter is ideal for those ideas or parts of research projects that are compelling but deserve fuller treatment beyond a journal article.

Please e-mail articles or suggestions to us at You can comment on all articles at The Convergence Newsletter blog. View past newsletters at The Convergence Newsletter archive.


Quick Glance Calendar (Details)

June 30: Deadline to submit papers for the Social Media Technology Conference & Workshop, Washington

August 1: Deadline to submit research papers for the Annual International Conference on Journalism & Mass Communications, Singapore

August 9-12: Annual Conference, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Chicago

September 27-28: 11th Annual Convergence and Society
Conference: Advancing Business Journalism and Convergence, Columbia, S.C.

September 27-28: Social Media Technology Conference & Workshop, Washington

December 3-4: Annual International Conference on Journalism & Mass Communications, Singapore


Featured article

Participatory journalism: A case study of emergency news in Memphis

By Carrie Brown-Smith
University of Memphis

The journalists of today's digital world are not only reporting and distributing the news but also are using social media tools to verify and curate information and interact with the public in an increasingly participatory news process. [1] Alfred Hermida has described Twitter in particular as a form of "ambient journalism." [2] News today is everywhere, all the time, often held in our hands in the form of a mobile device, yet we are not simply passive receivers of this news but also contributors to it as we go about our day and share observations and information with the world.

After watching residents of Memphis, Tenn., adopt the Twitter hashtag #memstorm to both access and contribute to information about severe weather, I became fascinated by the implications of the participatory, interactive power of this digital tool for local journalism. I designed a study to expand on the body of research on participatory journalism as well as the studies of Twitter uses and gratifications. In April 2011, tornado sirens blared on and off for nearly two days and a series of severe storms caused flooding, power outages, and other damage in the Mid-South, providing a perfect setting to investigate this phenomenon. [3] The hashtag, originally suggested by a member of the community, popularized by some influential local Twitter users, and only later adopted by the local media, exploded in use during this storm outbreak. Residents and journalists alike used it to share information and photos and to connect with others.

This study combined methodological approaches, including a content analysis of 1,608 Twitter posts, including original tweets, retweets, and replies, [4] tagged with #memstorm archived during the April storms, interviews with heavy hashtag users and local meteorologists and journalists, an online survey posted using the hashtag, and participant observation.

The findings revealed some primary motivations non-journalists had in using #memstorm and offer some insight into how journalists can better serve their audiences and remain relevant when people are turning to digital media for their news:

  • Sharing news and information was the primary motivation for using the hashtag, not particularly surprising given the potentially life-threatening nature of the situation. The greatest number of original tweets analyzed, 239, included direct observations about what hashtag users were witnessing, including things like rain or hail or fallen trees in specific neighborhoods or ZIP codes. Many users included a photo or, in some cases, a video.
  • Hashtag users also shared and received more general news and information, such as warnings and watches. Much of this general information originated from traditional media sources and was retweeted by users. The majority of retweets examined, 317, shared this kind of general news and information; 180 of those retweets were of local television meteorologists' or reporters' original tweets, which far outpaced 21 for newspapers.
  • The secondary motivation for using Twitter during the storm was connecting with others and building a sense of camaraderie. In interviews and in the survey, respondents said contributing to the greater good by receiving and sharing information gave them a sense of being connected to others in Memphis, and several said they felt a sense of safety or relief by discussing their fears or other emotions during severe weather on Twitter. The second largest category of tweets analyzed was the 212 expressing some kind of emotion, such as fear or frustration.
  • Other motivations for using the hashtag included joking around (which could also be part of building a sense of camaraderie), asking questions or crowdsourcing information from other Twitter users, and talking reflexively about Twitter and the hashtag itself; a few also used it to praise local journalists/meteorologists for their storm coverage.
The study also looked at the role of local journalists in utilizing the hashtag. During the April 2011 storms, content analysis revealed that most local journalists were still focused primarily on a one-way broadcast model, essentially using Twitter as just another distribution channel for the same information offered elsewhere. However, interviews with local meteorologists indicated that in the ensuing months they had dedicated more time to engaging with users, answering questions, and even sometimes offering geo-targeted information in response to a request. When hashtag users who are not journalists were asked about their expectations of local media, verification and helping to correct any misinformation circulating on Twitter was high on their list, and most said two-way communication was critical to take advantage of the interactive capacities of digital media sources. Some also noted that Twitter could be used as a reporting tool to gather information for other reports.

Carrie Brown-Smith is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Memphis. She also writes at

[1] Singer, J.B., et. al. (2011). Participatory Journalism: Guarding Open Gates at Online Newspapers. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. (Return)

[2] Hermida, A. (2010). "Twittering the News," Journalism Practice 4(3), 297-308. (Return)

[3] This study was presented at the International Symposium for Online Journalism in April 2012 and will be published in an upcoming issue of the ISOJ Journal. You can read the full paper with the full methodology and findings, (Return)

[4] The total of 1,608 Twitter posts included 887 original tweets, 577 retweets, and 144 replies. (Return)


Conferences, Training and Calls for Papers
(Return to top)

Social Media Technology Conference & Workshop
Deadline to submit research papers: June 30


Annual International Conference on Journalism & Mass Communications
Deadline to submit research papers: August 1


Annual Conference, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
August 9-12


11th Annual Convergence and Society Conference: Advancing Business Journalism
and Convergence
University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C.
September 27-28


Social Media Technology Conference & Workshop
September 27-28


Annual International Conference on Journalism & Mass Communications
December 3-4


Job Openings

Assistant Professor, two positions in digital media, both tenure-track
Arizona State University
Application deadline: Oct. 1
To apply, send C.V.; letter with job history, educational philosophy, research or creative interests; and references to Marianne Barrett, senior associate dean,


Assistant Professor, Public Relations & Corporate Communication, tenure-track
Utah State University
Requirements: Master's degree, PhD preferred; five years of professional experience
Appointment begins August 2013
Contact Cathy Bullock, search chair,, or Ted Pease, department head,


Lecturer, Photojournalism/Documentary Studies
Northern Arizona University
Requirements: Master's degree, professional experience
Application deadline: June 27. Position begins in August.
For details:


Lecturer, Communications and Public Relations, non-tenure
Auburn University
Requirements: Master's degree, teaching experience; professional experience desired
To apply, send C.V., letter, graduate school transcripts, official evidence of teaching effectiveness, and three letters of recommendation to John Carvalho, search chair,
Nine-month appointment begins Aug. 16


Publisher and Editorial Staff

The Convergence Newsletter is free and published by The College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina.

Executive Editor: Doug Fisher

Editor: Christopher Frear

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Submission Guidelines

The Convergence Newsletter provides an editorially neutral forum for discussion of the theoretical and professional meaning of media convergence in all forms including technological, organizational, operational, psychological, and sociological. We welcome articles of all sorts and encourage those addressing the subject in new ways and with new perspectives. We also accept news briefs, book reviews, calls for papers and conference announcements. Our audience is both academic and professional; the publication style is AP for copy and APA for citations.

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