Charlie’s Manhunt: Swimming in the Wake

While doing background research for an upcoming story on a panel discussion regarding the future of censorship and free speech after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I came across several archived, live blogs that chronicled the police’s attempts to apprehend the terrorists. Some of them, like this Vice blog, read like a big action scene in a Tom Clancy novel, broken up into timestamped blogposts, photos, and tweets, except it actually happened and some of these writers were actually there.

I couldn’t help but imagine these brave reporters as fish with Go-Pro’s attached to their heads, swimming in the wake of sharks, knowing that at any moment the feed could be severed by an unforeseen bite, or in this case, a bullet. A tad dramatic? Maybe, but it is that element of impending danger that can give mobile reporting its edge-of-your-seat appeal that is often absent from a traditional news article, even when reading the accounts more than a month after the fact.

Hannah Strange, managing editor for Vice News in Europe wrote the blog itself, while her colleagues, John Beck, Meladie Bouchaud and Etienne Rouillon reported from the field with pictures and updates.

The blog begins with the hostage situation at an industrial complex in Dammartin-en-Goele, about 22 miles north-east of Paris, where security forces cordoned off the area. Following a brief synopsis of the events leading up to this point, photos contributed by Etienne Rouillon capture the grim atmosphere, literal and metaphorical, surrounding the situation.

Images by Etienne Rouillon
Danmartin-en-Goele: Helicopters and Security Forces Cordon Off Industrial Complex. 

John Beck reports from the field and is able to capture the emotions of the local residents of the town, which is made available to us immediately through the use of mobile journalism.

Gripping coverage made possible by mobile journalism
Gripping overage made possible through mobile journalism. 

One thing that makes mobile journalism and live blogging so useful is its flexibility and readiness to adapt to a quickly evolving situation. 30 minutes after the above post was made, another hostage situation began to unfold in a Jewish market in Eastern Paris. It seems as though Vice had no one in the vicinity of the incident, but were able to keep their readers informed with tweets from the Agence France- Presse (AFP), who broke the story.

AFP Tweets
AFP Tweets

It cannot be an easy task, to have people on the ground in one area covering an unfolding hostage crisis, only to have another, related hostage crisis, take place somewhere else in the region. The pressure to adequately cover both must have been enormous, but physics has something to say about being in two places at once. Enter, social media. Twitter allowed Ms. Strange to be in two places at once (take that, Stephen Hawking), or at least adequately report on two places at once (apologies to Mr. Hawking).

The rapid unfolding of events that followed must have seemed like a hailstorm of information. In less than two hours the number of dead (2), the number of hostages (5), the suspects’ identities, the police activities at both locations, and whether or not the two incidents were connected, all had to be covered. Without social media, Strange would have been hard pressed to write such an informative live blog.

Less than three hours later, police launched an assault on the two Charlie Hebdo suspects with great result, killing both with zero hostage casualties. Unfortunately the situation in Eastern Paris did not end so well, as four hostages were killed, four were critically wounded and the female suspect escaped. John Beck, reporter in the field, had this to say afterward:

Tweet from John Beck
Tweet from John Beck

Horrible people, doing horrible things, while engrossing and important to report on, is heavy reading. So it was nice to see a celebratory tweet from someone who witnessed the whole ordeal first hand. It was like the moment you are finally able to breath properly again after the climax of a thrilling movie, except this was real and lives were affected.

When it comes to Twitter, I may enjoy playing the roll of the old curmudgeon, Grandpa Tweet. However, I am quickly realizing that Twitter is a powerful force, with the ability to empower, enrage and inform the masses, like never before.

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