Here’s why today’s journalists need to be living the ‘tweet’ life
WHEN disaster hits, journalists still race to get to the scene first – but these days someone else is likely to beat them to it.
After devastating earthquakes hit Canterbury and Japan, most first accounts didn’t come from trained reporters and camera operators, but from dozens of “ordinary” people posting videos, still pictures and personal stories on You Tube, Twitter and Facebook.
That’s where mainstream media head now, even before the first staff can get out the newsroom door.
In Christchurch, a Press videographer had dramatic footage posted on Stuff within three and a half hours of the February 22 earthquake.
But he was well behind amateur footage of the cliff-face collapse that destroyed the Sumner RSA. He admitted in his video he had been on the street without his camera when the quake struck and had to go back to the office to grab it.
Global media giants like CNN carried excellent coverage from amateurs that had been posted on You Tube before their own people could get anywhere near the vast damage caused by the tsunami.
Social media has given news outlets, especially internet based platforms, the chance to show the voices of citizen journalists on a much wider scale, says Greer McDonald, social media editor for FairfaxNZ’s Stuff website.
For her, the February 22 earthquake was a different experience to the one which hit the region last September.
She woke up to that one. “I felt it and I went on Twitter and saw it was a big one. I rang the office and I was in the office within half an hour with five other people.
“In that example, we had a gallery of 75 images of the quake by 8.30 in the morning (just a few hours after the event) and not one of them was taken by a Fairfax photographer. They were all reader pictures.”
In February, first images of the quake were coming in to Stuff concurrently from readers and Fairfax staff who were already out on other assignments.
“Once (Christchurch) had internet connection, we had a really steady flow through, which was a very different scenario.
“In September, we relied on the Twitter community quite strongly to provide us details, whereas this time we knew the details for ourselves because our own staff were involved. It was a different kind of dynamic that time.”
Fairfax staff had the added stress of knowing their colleagues from the Christchurch Press were in a building that had been significantly damaged by the 6.4 magnitude earthquake.
“We were under the pump from every angle and deeply, deeply concerned about our colleagues, who were very,very much affected by it.”
Using the Stuff Twitter feed, as well as her personal twitter account, McDonald later confirmed there had been a death at the building.
The New Zealand Herald website based in Auckland also turned to social media in the moments following the earthquake.
Jeremy Rees, online editor for APN, says Twitter is “really good for eye witness accounts after a major event. It provided much of the initial spate of accounts of the earthquake.”
He says the major boon social media gives a news outlet is the chance to talk to and hear from people in an unvarnished way.
What impact has the huge surge in social media had on the news media? Not as much as you might think, according to those who are working in the industry.
Dave Lee – online journalist at the BBC and a judge of media websites in the latest Canon Media Awards – says social media has “gone from being something the geeks did, to something that threw up the odd story, to now being as essential a source as the news wires.”
But he points out the traditional role of the journalist hasn’t changed, something Greer McDonald and Jeremy Rees both emphasise. Lee says social media is simply a “different way of over-hearing things”.
In New Zealand, Jeremy Rees says tweeting, using Facebook or uploading to YouTube are technical skills and the old skills of sifting information will become more useful – and necessary – as the volume of data increases.
“The old skills are always the best ones for journalists – sorting the wheat from the chaff, being curious, following your nose.”
According to Rees, curiosity is the key skill for a journalist to possess. “If a person is curious, they can learn social media. If a person knows social media but isn’t curious, they can’t become a journalist.”
Another journalistic staple that will remain important is checking reliability. On social media, there are cases where publishing a comment straight from the Twitter stream is acceptable, such as when using it as an eyewitness account, says Jeremy Rees. In such cases, they wouldn’t be checked.
But when it is something that is being proffered as fact it will be checked before being published.
Dave Lee says reliability is an obvious problem for journalists using social media to gather their news. The BBC has a team of people whose role is to verify all user-generated content and this team will often call on experts in the field to help.
“My favourite anecdote is how once a video from Iran showing a pro-government march was shown to be false because in the background you could see an old clock. An Iranian BBC journalist pointed out that the video must be over a year old, as the clock’s surrounding is now a different colour.”
Everybody interviewed agreed the key thing to using social media for journalism is that it should only ever be viewed as a starting point.
Lee tells the story of spotting a local tweet by someone saying they were starting a campaign. He followed this up in the “real world” by phoning, interviewing and so on. It then became a fully-fledged story that was published on the BBC website.
Greer McDonald views it as a link to somebody who can provide a fuller story: “It’s like collecting someone’s phone number. You don’t text them and ask for a quote – you ring them and you get to know them. It’s all about human connections and human stories.
“It’s actually about sifting out the decent comments from the banal ‘I’m eating Weet-Bix for breakfast’ tweets, which do exist. It’s changed the way that…people frequently used to say ‘Oh, Twitter. It’s just a bunch of geeks on computers and how can you trust who is on the end of the computer?’ And now it’s like, well, there are actually humans on the end of the computer.”
The human angle is one which could cause issues for many journalists, who have to ask themselves where is the line drawn between the “objective” journalist and the person behind the words?
“Can a journalist give their opinion on something or somebody when they are also trying to objectively report?
“That’s a very tricky issue for reporters. Until relatively recently, journalists have sought a degree of anonymity, hiding their opinions from being public. Twitter and Facebook make them visible.”
Dave Lee says he has had his “knuckles wrapped” a couple of times because of inappropriate comments appearing on his Twitter stream: “One of which was a joke about a political party in the UK. I can’t show any sort of bias like that.”
Employees at the BBC have adopted two separate accounts to combat this. One staff member, Rory Cellen-Jones, has more than double the followers on his personal Twitter than his work account.
Lee: “That tells me readers quite like knowing their correspondents are normal people, who really hold a passion for what they report on. You’ll often find Rory, for instance, talking about tech on a Sunday morning, even though he’s not working on a story. That’s a brilliant way to build a reputation.”
Building a reputation, or a brand, is one of the most valuable applications Greer McDonald sees for social media and the role of the journalist.
“There is no differentiation when you are a journalist. You are a journalist 24/7, and I say that people should use their personal accounts professionally. What that does is it allows people to realise you are a journalist first and foremost, but that you are human, as well.
“I’ve very much got my own brand which people know me for, and people link it stringently with my company and that’s going to start to happen. It’s already happening overseas where once newspaper journalists used to hide behind their typewriters. They’re actually now having to step out and say ‘I’m a newspaper journalist – come to me for stories.’
“That’s really hard for some people, especially older journalists. They don’t believe. They think that everybody reads their byline (name) and that’s how they get their credit. But everybody knows the only people who read bylines are other journalists and parents. No-one else cares where the news comes from. I think that’s actually really cool and exciting.
“If anyone looked at my Twitter stream, they are likely to see me link to news stories, talk to my boyfriend about what we’re going to have for dinner that night, and I will ask a friend if they want to meet up for a drink tomorrow.
“And then there’d be another news tweet and then a call for people involved in Working for Families who want to speak to the Dom Post.”
She says it’s a mixture, and because of that people have a connection to her because they feel like they know her 24/7 and she’s not just somebody who goes and uses Twitter.
“I think now that there’s an influx of journalists on Twitter they need to actually really engage and that’s a horrible buzz word – engage – but it’s actually true. Twitter users are very loyal and they are very community.
“It’s an online community. You can’t just waltz in and expect to get all the answers and all the great leads and all that kind of stuff from people you aren’t connected with. It’s those human connections you make with people where they do know what I had for breakfast. They actually know I’m a human that will actually playout in the long run. That’s what I’ve found, anyway.”
She encourages students who are learning the fundamentals of journalism to take heed of this as early as possible. “There is a need for people to realise (and you get told it all the time) what you put on the internet is there forever.”
While studying, students have to protect their online reputation before they achieve a public profile, particularly because journalists can become a target over credibility.
“Journalism students have to realise they have a reputation to protect and the best way to that is take an active approach to it. Journalism school is the perfecttime to do that.”
It also works really well for finding a job, she says: “If you get your name out there already on all of these tools, it puts you way, way, way ahead of other people potentially going for your jobs. It’s absolutely crucial that journalism schools take heed.
“I’ve only been out of journalism school for four years and they’d just introduced a blogging thing. I joined Facebook during the year I was finishing my studies.
“Twitter wasn’t even heard of by then. All those things I’ve learnt in the past few years on the job or in my personal life. I just happen to be a geek in my personal life. There’s no excuse really to not do it and journalism schools should be moving as fast if not faster.”
Jim Tucker, head of journalism at Whitireia, couldn’t agree more. In 2005, when he was executive director of the NZ Journalists Training Organisation (the body that accredits and monitors journalism schools) he was aware journalism schools around the world were deeply unsure how to meet rapid changes in news media.
“Everybody was kind of frozen in the headlights,” he says. It was one of the reasons he left the JTO in 2007 to reinvent the ailing Whitireia Journalism School – he could see the opportunity media convergence offered to any school that moved to meet the challenge.
Whitireia invited Dave Lee – then in the final year of a media degree at Lincoln University – over for a couple of months to advise and teach, a move that led to the setting up of NewsWire, the school’s highly successful news website, a teaching tool that has given the edge Tucker sought.
He says the experience proved a point: in this area (online journalism/social media) those who grew up in the digital age (Gen Y) are the ones who know how it works. They are now having as big an impact on the news media as the internet itself.
What is the future for the marriage between social media and news outlets? Greer McDonald – who as part of her job as social media editor for the Stuff website also trains Fairfax staff around the country (780 journalists) in using the platforms – hopes her job will become redundant in the future.
She thinks in time reporters will see the importance of Twitter and make it one percent of their working day.
She also says very soon it’s likely we will see the emergence of new roles in newsrooms, such as community managers for online sites. Community managers for news websites have already been established in overseas news outlets.
With most major newspapers now having an online presence, the role of a community manager is to connect into the online communities in their region and feed story ideas they find to staff reporters to follow up.
She says things have moved a long way since she started: “When I was at the Dom Post I spent hours trying to convince news editors that the internet didn’t need a capital letter because it wasn’t something that was going away.
“It wasn’t this novel little new thing that was going around, and they needed to sit up and take notice. That was my biggest battle working for a newspaper. Trying to say that the digital community needed a voice.”
The last 12 months have been the absolute pinnacle in her view. “If there were any doubters out there I think that they’d be hard-pressed to have those same concerns nowadays. Because it’s just not what has happened in New Zealand, but also overseas, with Egypt and various other political things that have all happened and been pushed through faster because of the effect of social media.”