#ZanzibarBoatAccident and the Tanzanian media – failure all round?

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, MjengwaIssa 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:

(Photos from 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.

– – – – –
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.

– – – – –

Originally posted on Daraja’s blog, at http://blog.daraja.org/2011/09/zanzibarboataccident-and-tanzanian.html

12 thoughts on “#ZanzibarBoatAccident and the Tanzanian media – failure all round?

  1. Subi

    Thanks Ben for spotting out the shortfalls, I admit I didn't bother to check and verify the photos at the time.

    I was pre-occupied with receiving/gathering any news information about the accident, I ended up feeling exhausted and tired. I remember to have seen a red spot in my right eye after washing my face (when I got up to the bathroom), and that's when I realized I was really tired and hadn't slept for 23 hrs.

    So, no excuse, I agree I failed somehow, but I learned something out of this, hopefully I will improve as I continue to blog.

    Once again, thanks for cross-checking. I have updated the post (at wavuti.com) and removed some unrelated photos.

  2. Anonymous

    Don't blame social media for posting the wrong picture, you have to praise the power of social media. Those pictures went viral within a minute and those out of the country trusted their fellow local reporters. The ball fall to our Govt for not taking this incident that serious from the time it happened until BBC and CNN started to report this that was the time they thought ahhh we need to do something.

    I first heard the news from CNN , I rushed to check my Tweets t”tanzani buddies” all were talking about miss Tanzania. Started to google blogs and came across those pictures but I don't blame bloggers who posted those b'se in this day and technology is on our finger tips many assumed after 12 hours after the accident at least would have a picture of accident scene unless the accident happened in Amazone

  3. Ben Taylor

    @Subi, great to you see you accepting the shortcoming, and correcting it. Easy to see how it can happen.

    Was the second photo really from Associated Press? I couldn't trace it to them, but my connection has been very slow today.

    @Anonymous, you are right in that social media proved very able to spread the photos very quickly, but what is that really worth if the pictures are completely unrelated to the disaster? We tend to trust what we see written / posted online, especially when it's done by reputable bloggers. I don't blame individuals with a facebook account (or even twitter) for re-posting without fact-checking, but when bloggers claim to be news blogs, they should be aiming for a higher standard.

    @Martin, I hadn't spotted the Wikipedia entry, thanks. It seems the Spice Islanders' previous history is quite different from some speculation I had seen (assuming Wikipedia itself is accurate of course).

  4. Proches

    Nice article. I agree with what you have said but I still think, on the event, people used social media to know what was going on. The mainstream media was a disappointment. I was skeptical with the ship photos and questioned this on Facebook but it seemed that people were carried away by what happened.

    People were more concerned with the death and life of their loved ones, not the type or colour of the ship involved in the disaster. At least social media provided a glimpse of the disaster but the mainstream media provided none until after several hours have passed.

    Social media is still in its infancy stage in Tanzania. We're still learning on how to use it. But on this event rather than discrediting it, we should praise social media for doing its best. Even our politicians such as Hon Zitto were using social media to spread the message around.

    As social media is still very young and growing in Tanzania and we will learn from this and improve our standards. As for the mainstream media, they have been there, done it but they have repeatedly been doing it wrongly.

  5. Chambi Chachage

    Spot on!I actually tried to crosscheck also before I posted it.Got it right on the second photo though the 'respected website' almost got me as I was much interested in that photo as it was/is close to the MV Bukoba which I was trying to put as a contrast.Even though I had doubts about the first photo and even tried to read the name on its side somehow I could not find any proof of its inauthenticity given that it kept appearing on all the blogs that I trust/respect when I was googling.No excuse.But I should have trusted my first impression and pay more attention to details.Now the challenge is to get a subsitute. Thanks for the the rigor!

  6. Anonymous

    This says all about our Govt or our education systems. People paid very well but don't like to do their jobs that is why we see many crazy stuffs happen everyday.

    You have to know 50% of these bloggers don't have formal journalism education and some who do obvious skipped some classes or have those photoshopped certificates. Many of these bloggers who make good money through endorsements don't care to double checked for anything they post because those sponsors don't care so the vircious cycle keep going. Who knows those the quality of these products we see endorsed by these bloggers.

    Nobody cares to do right what they are paid to do or if they chose to do as a hobby. That's is why we see overcrowded broken vessel allowed to leave the port.
    After wrong doing they come up with excuses but sometimes excuses won't be enough to repair the damage done.

  7. Ben Taylor

    Thanks for all the comments, folks.

    And thanks to @Proches for the interesting link on the “source” of the second photo. I've since seen a very similar photo (also from the earlier Filipino sinking) on the Egyption Gazette as well, citing AFP this time.

    @Anonymous, interesting that you link social media failures to maritime regulation failures as both being examples of people not taking responsibility for their work. But I don't have any problem with journalists / bloggers who are not professionally trained.

    @Chambi / Udadisi, so you had the same initial doubts that I did, interesting.

  8. kateB

    Well put together..I to RT the wrong image..it was the only thing i saw when i glanced at my twitterfeed..i had no idea what was going on…it was 2am my time, and I was out and about..exercising my inner Bacchilian, the photo did look strange but with nothing else online about the incident only twitter, i went with it. I couldn't see myself cross checking if image is correct at that moment, i was overcome with fear of the tragedy, loss of lives and concerned about rescue efforts.

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