29 Jul 2014

Social media and its role in modern journalism

In 2009, David Carr claimed in the New York Times that "the medium is not the message; the messages are the media". Social media is radically embellishing this claim, making "the message" louder, more informative, and more complicated.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites and apps are producing a monumental shift in our society. With this, news sources are also experiencing monumental shifts – and social media communities are at the heart of them.

So how do journalists use social media to create or enhance a story? And how do journalists use social media to connect to the story, as well as connect their story to the community?

Of course, stories sourced in social media attract – sometimes rightfully – scepticism. Good old-fashioned investigative journalism still gets the biggest scoops, and whilst they frequently utilise the tools of the digital age (such as the Edward Snowden revelations), social media doesn’t seem to be the natural hunting-ground for stories with clout. It's much better for finding a GIF of a cute kitten falling into a toilet.

How can we validate the 'facts' found on social media? How can we cut through the noise and falsities to get the nuggets of information that are there for the taking? The sheer amount of social media noise – people broadcasting every dull facet of their life; publishing their latest ‘which Beatles member are you?’ result; retweeting unverified gossip about the latest news story – makes it very difficult to find the specific, accurate information that you want to find.

There are people working on this, and tools are being developed to help people cut through the noise. But even if journalists engage with unfiltered data, social media platforms are behemoths harbouring some brilliant pieces of data, comment and sources – so long as you search effectively for the specific information you need.

Twitter is a brilliant tool of the trade, and professional journalists are primed to refine it. Journalists know how to fact-check: they are trained to validate information and, providing they have the tools to sift through social media noise, Twitter and other similar platforms are perfect for providing stories. Journalists can provide a louder voice, with accountability, scrutiny and objectivity, to selected pieces of information on social media – information which could easily be dismissed as loud gossip if shared by the general public.

It seems that, with the rise citizen journalists sharing potentially interesting but unverified data on social media, the need for professional journalists is greater than ever. The journalistic tasks of fact-checking, context-providing and explanation-seeking are already in the hack’s arsenal, and they are the key to cultivating social media into a rich news source. Anyone can broadcast ‘news’; adding reliable meat to the bones is more important than ever.

Not only is social media useful to source information, but perhaps its most useful function is community engagement. The digital age has given journalists the gift of easy, real-time intercourse with their readers, whereby readers can contribute to, comment on and help distribute a story. This enhances the connection between story and reader, allowing a community to form and engage in a two-way process with story and writer.

The main improvements that social media has provided to the journalist may be summarised with these four bullet points:
  • Connection – it is much easier to find people. Crowdsourcing the public is easier than ever to find witnesses or collect opinion on an event;
  • Voice – bloggers, activists and other members of the public are given a platform to raise their voices. You just have to ensure you don't abuse this gift, and your message has the potential to reach thousands;
  • Information - social media platforms are essentially storage tanks full to the brim of information. Whilst much of this is unconfirmed hearsay or insignificant posts, cutting through the noise may well be worth it. The chaos of a breaking story leads to unestablished claims and dead-ends, but eventually the facts will be pieced together and spread by a large online community, far beyond the resources of one journalist; 
  • Community – social media allows the journalist to create a two-way process with their readers, who also contribute to a story. The process of journalism is more open than ever. One small tweet can create a butterfly effect, whereby it is shared and contributed to by hundreds of people, triggering significant traction and social impact. 

So, if you’re a journalist who wants to find something out (a journalist, then), what better resource is there than a platform which has millions of people sharing information? You need to do the digging, but sifting through the noise may be worth it to source some data, find a story or engage with a community. You also need to value social media. If you have a crowd of followers, you need to only involve them if there’s a reason for thinking they’d value it – noise for noise’s sake, or self-gratification, damages social media.

Journalists need to collaborate with citizen journalists to source the unheard stories that are floating about social media platforms. When they involve the community, and amplify the stories which need to be heard over the noise, social media is one of the best tools out there. Having such rich and varied information at your fingertips, flowing freely in real-time, is an overlooked and undervalued gift. Journalists can use this resource to find brilliant stories with information which is hugely significant, and then again use it to spread the story through a community to harness real impact. There will always be questions involving reliability, noise and scrutiny surrounding a platform on which anyone can post, but the potential of such an information-sharing stage is brilliant. Journalists will always be needed to cultivate such platforms to form reliable, responsible and respectable stories.


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