Towards an Emergency News Service?

The 2005 World Disasters Report stated that “information is a vital form of aid in itself [since] disaster affected people need information as much as water, food, medicine or shelter. Information can save lives, livelihoods and resources.”

As we know only too well, information is often one of the first casualties in crises: crippled communications and shattered transportation links present significant obstacles. Communication with beneficiaries is rarely high on the priority lists of many relief responders.


The Thomson Reuters Foundation is therefore proposing to tackle this problem with the creation of an Emergency Information Service (EIS). The concept is simple:

Deploy highly mobile reporting teams to disaster zones to disseminate fast, reliable information to affected populations. The EIS will untangle the often chaotic information flows from governments, international agencies and domestic aid players, producing trustworthy material in local languages for distribution by domestic media, cell phone networks and other methods appropriate to circumstances.

Thompson Reuters wants to send out teams of specialist reporters to cover unfolding disaster zones and channel vital information directly to affected communities. The teams would also interface with governments, the military, the United Nations, international NGOs and local charities.

I can see how this would address some of the current shortcomings, but I’m not convinced about sending in teams of reporters. For one, how will EIS deal with governments that refuse entry into their disaster effected regions? We need a less “egocentric” approach, one that seeks “the proper balance between the need for external assistance and the capacity of local people to deal with the situation” (Cardona 2004).

EIS’s reporting strategy appears to replicate the top-down, external approach to humanitarian response instead of empowering local at-risk communities directly so they can conduct their own reporting and communicating. For example, why not include a strategy to improve and expand citizen journalism in crisis zones?

In any case, I think EIS’s disseminating strategy includes some good ideas. For example:

  • Remote information terminals: These are low-cost computer terminals to be distributed en masse to affected villages, local NGOs, media outlets etc. Terminals will be wind-up or solar-powered laptops capable of being connected to mobile or satellite phones. With minimal training, local people can set up the terminals and use them to gain critical information about relief efforts or trace relatives.
  • Mobile phone distributions: In many crisis situations, SMS messaging is possible even when other communications are destroyed or overloaded. The distribution of thousands of low-cost handsets to community leaders, NGO volunteers and members of the local media could create a “bush telegraph” effect and allow two-way interaction with beneficiaries.
  • Recorded information bulletins: Mobile phone users will be able to dial in to regularly updated, local-language bulletins giving the latest information on health, shelter, government response and so on.
  • Zero-tech solutions: Megaphones, posters, leaflet drops, bulletin boards, community newsletters.

In order for this to catch, ENS should be set up to provide services during times of non-disasters as well.

In terms of next steps:

“The Thomson Reuters Foundation will soon launch a new website – – to serve as a gateway for all its activities. The Emergency News Agency and AlertNet will be core components of the new site. will provide a single point of access for aid professionals, journalists, pro bono service providers, donors and members of the public. Telecommunications allowing, it could also serve as a powerful resource centre for communities affected by disasters.”

For more information on the Emergency News Service, please see this thinkpaper (PDF).

Patrick Philippe Meier

9 responses to “Towards an Emergency News Service?

  1. When I served in Liberia 1996-98) as UNDHA Field Coordinator my public information officer and I developed a strategy to counter the poisonous and fractious diatribe from the faction leaders and try to reconnect Liberians to what was happening in their country. The strategy entailed direct outreach to Liberian print and radio jounalists, forming press pools and transporting them across lines of confrontation and allowing them to develop stories. The effect was profound in influencing the popular perception of the state of the country and helped to buld a popular indignation over the images of reality and suffering that began to dominate the media. This new found voice of truth, enabled the media to also begin a more independent editorializing on the peace process. The effort did not solve Liberia’s problems, but it did nudge into action the role of the media in national conflict rsolution. My caution with the reuters plan is the typical aid worker hubris of we know best. why bring in teams of expats versus mobilizing networks of local stringers or relaible partners and help them with organization, mobility and access to do their jobs? I dont agree with computers or cell phones as dissemination means . This is more pandering to the ” IT solves all” crowd mentality. Most of these communities still use radio and print media for mass communications. These are also the most durable mechanisms in crises. That is where the focus should be.

  2. It’s curious that their study doesn’t mention the numerous projects in the humanitarian information space that focus on working with local media initiatives. For instance the Pakistan case study ignores the tremendous effort put in by Internews together with local media partners to set up an extensive humanitarian information response that included setting up 8 radio stations, distributing 10,000 radio sets, and training dozens of local journalists to cover the story for local audiences. Full disclosure – I helped work on that project and some others they ran in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Kenya, and Sudan.

    I wonder if the focus for TR is less local audiences than international, perhaps? In any case, I’d encourage a focus on local capacity both on the mainstream and the citizen media sides, and active collaboration and information sharing among international partners interested in this subject.

  3. This is a really interesting idea, especially since budgets for large mainstream media news organizations are being slashed daily. It weaves together the strength of beat reporting (high-impact, low warning natural disasters in parts of the world with weak information infrastructure) and wire service distribution. I agree that designing an information matrix able to mesh with local journalism networks — both MSM and citizen media outlets — makes a great deal of sense. (btw, Does anyone have a better term than “citizen journalism”? Even MSM journalists are citizens…)

    As the editor of, I have thought quite a lot about the health/humanitarian/tech beat. Breaking news is *not* Tracker’s forte. Its focus instead is on context, with several stories (news, research, websites, books, book reviews, blog posts, maps – print, audio, video) grouped for relevance.

    Content is also not organized by category, nor is it necessarily dateline-driven. It’s been absolutely liberating to be able to include a video that may be a couple of months old, or research that may be a couple of years old, that’s spot on.

    The hope is to create an eclectic mix interesting enough to draw an equally eclectic group of readers — and give them a chance to see even at-a-glance what’s going on in related fields. Sometimes the best ideas are found in the chasms between those infamous “silos” of expertise.

    Tracker is still very much v.1, but even so, it’s beginning to build up a fairly interesting database.

    re the local angle — Here’s a very rough sketch of a “custom tracker” tool I put together for friend & colleague Ed Jezierski: Basically, it’s DIY site map for the collective knowledge of a group, event or topic. Tracker’s back end UI is wysiwyg and drag’n’drop (think iGoogle). You can create as many categories, sub-categories and tool-tipped listings as needed and arrange however makes sense. It’s a very simple, flexible tool. (If anyone would like a tour of the demo version, please contact me at “editor at”)

    Back to the “Emergency News Network” – over the last several months I have been mainlining media and can see a real need for something like this. It is an ambitious undertaking, and I am sure there will be a significant learning curve along the way (especially re tying in local media). But while it seems everybody else is pulling out of the news business, it is thrilling to see them expand.



  4. btw – here’s a slide show that gives of sense of the range covered by TrackerNews. It’s very much a work in progress…

    thank you,


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