Cell Phone Coverage: Oklahoma Earthquake, September 3, 2016

A major earthquake was felt across the Midwest Saturday morning, with local reports from Texas to Iowa, according to the Associated Press.

At 7:02 a.m. a 5.6 magnitude earthquake occurred in north-central Oklahoma, reported by the United States Geological Survey. A quake in the same area happened in November 2011, and an increase in earthquakes registering at magnitudes of 3.0 or greater have been linked to the oil and natural gas industries’ practice of disposing of wastewater underground in Oklahoma.

Some of the first images to be published online were from residents of the affected towns, including Pawnee, Oklahoma, nearest to the epicenter. Local station News 9 shared the photo below, taken by J. Berry Harrison III, as well as images from several other residents in this news piece:


OK earthquake from News 9
Photo credit: News 9 viewer J. Berry Harrison III

This image was captured on a cell phone, as noted in both the quality of the photo and the fact that most user-submitted photos in breaking news situations are shot on what is available on hand in one’s pocket.

While no major injuries have been reported and no buildings collapsed in Pawnee, earthquakes and other natural disasters pose immediate threats to lives and property. Being able to report quickly on the aftermath of such disasters is crucial to understand the level of severity involved, get word out to affected communities, and provide assistance to those residents.

With both these elements in mind, producing coverage of this earthquake with user-generated content was appropriate and beneficial to the story. Shock value and the after effects of earthquakes are best communicated through visuals, especially those taken in commonplace locations that are rarely scenes of damage or disarray.

The above photo taken by Harrison III and the one below, by Mike Roberts at White’s Foodliner in Pawnee, Oklahoma and included in the news piece’s slideshow, both display piles of materials in unlikely places. The viewer is invited to imagine the powerful force that created such a moment in a matter of minutes, or even seconds. In the former, a higher element of danger from the stones having fallen from above makes the fact there were no major injuries a relief. The in the latter, the amount of labor to place each box of cereal on the shelf at this local market – suddenly lost – feels like a weight to the eyes. The portrait angle of the shot displays the extent of the damage, in only one aisle out of many.


White's Foodliner News 9
Photo credit: Mike Roberts

The slideshow, in which Roberts’ photo is featured, is an efficient and dramatic way to present the collection of images submitted by residents affected by the earthquake.

Cell phone coverage of news events is not always ideal, but in the case of natural disasters such as this, it is one of the most effective and impactful forms of storytelling.


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