Tuesday, March 15, 2011


by Philip J Cunningham

The world of information made possible by Twitter technology is vast and fascinating, but what really rises above the Twittering noise, random comments and repetitive multiple posts of second, third and fourth hand material is the work of an intrepid individual, sharing, in short installments, an eye-witness view of an evolving situation. It is a take on the news as old as the news itself, first person testimony, offering a degree of coherence and individual fidelity that stands head and shoulders above the random, aggregate posts of a busy Twitter feed.

In a matter of just a few days, one of the most privileged, affluent societies in Asia has been hit and laid prone with multiple disasters, and though the worst may be over, it's far from over yet. Japan, indeed the world as a whole, will feel the influence of the deadly March 11 earthquake, tsunami, related aftershocks, eruptions and subsequent damage to nuclear power plants and more generally the economy for years to come.

The following is the tweet record of an American reporter, now an Asia correspondent for VOA, with 18 years experience in Japan as he covers what could be fairly described as the biggest news story of his career

The reporter is Steve Herman and his twitter tag is W7VOA.

Steve Herman and I worked together in the International Division of NHK in 1990-1, sharing a Tokyo office while working as televison producers on Asia Now and China Now respectively.

Even then, long before he became a radio correspondent for CBS and later President of the FCCJ, I thought him the epitome of a newsman, one who was living and breathing news round the clock. A solid reporter with an excellent understanding not just of international news issues but the minutae of how things work in Japan, Steve is a good guide to a big breaking story.

The veteran reporter happened to be out of Japan when the big quake struck but managed to get back in country, despite disruptions at airports and rail lines, within a day. His posts chronicle a journey across Japan as he seeks access and interviews in the three hardest hit areas, Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.

His intial entries in this informal online diary commence with short notes about news he is reading and re-tweets of posts made by other journalists he is following on Twitter, reacting to news rather than reporting it, and appropriately enough, as it takes him the better part of a day to get on the scene. RT is short for re-tweet and sometimes he posts links to published articles that he likes or makes reference to.

Once he’s on his way to the scene of tsunami damage and dysfunctional nuclear power plants, the second-hand news and reactions to the news are gradually replaced by first-person anecdotes, sensations, interviews and reporting. When the earth starts shaking, he describes it. Then he finds out more about the quake or aftershock, and tweets the best information available to him at the time.

Sometimes it's an earthquake warning with no earthquake, sometimes an earthquake without warning.

The constant tickertape flow of tweets by him and other people on the scene start to be incorporated into news updates which are also tagged, retweeted and made reference to on the Internet, TV and radio.

In short, by looking at a series of thoughtful on the scene tweets, one can get a feel for how information travels, how information is culled and selected and how it is then broadcast and repeated until it becomes the received understanding of an event.

This sort of tweet diary is interesting even when second-hand and third hand information is collated and forwarded, but it really is at its best when it shifts to the first person, and the tweeter on the scene is telling us about things he or she sees, hears, wonders about and analyzes in an original way.

Following his twitter reports in real time is to be transported into the urgency of a breaking story in the company of a cool, seasoned guide who does not flinch in the face of obstacles or bad news. Even with the haiku-like discipline of writing in short bursts, there is narrative arc and a building sense of drama as the reporter moves onto the scene and traverses difficult, sometimes outright dangerous territory.

For all their news value and dramatic impact, tweets are also snippets of personal conversations put to print. In Steve’s case, as he makes a dash from a safe part of Japan to an area at risk, his friends on Twitter urged him not to go, to consider the dangers, to which his response was simple and firm.

“It's my job.”

Here, then, a record of informal tweets from veteran Asia correspondent Steve Herman as he does his job. While investigating a tough, multifaceted breaking story, he took the time to tweet updates about things he saw and heard and gleaned from official sources. His short, abbreviated observations were informative enough that within a few days time he had ten thousand “followers” reading and re-tweeting his posts, including fellow journalists, all the while filing formal, in-depth reports for Voice of America.

The posts here have been copied from his twitter history, and thus are in reverse chronological order. To better sense the drama of an unfolding story in which each subsequent development is unknown, one might browse his posts by scrolling from the bottom up.

Steve Herman
@W7VOA √úT: 37.373258,140.371634
Voice of America (VOA) Bureau Chief/Correspondent, based in Seoul, mainly covering NE Asia (Korean peninsula & Japan)