Committing Acts of Journalism Through Social Media

CBC Social Media and News Panel

Fascinating panel moderated by Jian Ghomeshi (CBC The Q) (Twitter: @jianghomeshi) on Social Media and Traditional, or Legacy, Media as part of Culture Days and the celebrations around 75 years of CBC. In front of a live audience on Friday October 1st in Vancouver, Jian placed some provocative questions to the panelists CBC’s Ian Hanomansing (Twitter: @CBCIan), Tara Mahoney (Twitter: @genwhymedia) of the Gen Why Media Project, journalist Frances Bula (Twitter: @fabulavancouver) and Alfred Hermida (Twitter: @Hermida), a founding member of the BBC news website and journalism professor at UBC.

As a moment of serendipity, just before watching the full 45 minute video of the panel, I tweeted a mashup of lines that have previously been voiced by many others.

When you tweet the news, you commit an act of journalism.

Share a link, you become an editor

CBC Social Media and News Panel

CBC Social Media and News Panel

Keep that in mind as you watch the video, and as some of the more divisive points are fleshed out in this post. The overall conclusion from Frances Bula and Ian Hanomansing, the two journalists on the panel, is social media, Twitter especially, somehow does not meet their expectations as a news medium, while both Tara Mahoney and Alfred Humida see current and future positives as a platform to share, amplify and report news. Having great respect for both Frances and Ian as excellent journalists I was somewhat surprised and disappointed with many of their examples and comments. Possibly the bubble effect or fish-eye lens resulting from decades of involvement with legacy media has warped their perspective; placing a value on any digital or social media platform as simply a ‘news’ source, or ‘broadcast’ medium misses the point entirely. Tara was most correct pointing out that users place different values on what they might obtain from social media, and the potential to highlight issues not reported, or even discounted, by editorialized media is one prevalent power (although her natural emphasis on youth misses a wide and growing older demographic who have taken to social media). Alfred made a very relevant point that it is too early to quantify or evaluate social media influence on news, much as the debate over TV vs radio and newspapers generated very similar discussions in the 1950s and 60s.

The originating questions from Jian focused on social media, the Arab Spring and comparisons to usage in open media democracies. It is absolutely valid, as noted by both Frances and Ian, that restrictions on the press meant social media became the only medium for protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and (not mentioned, but important, Syria) to vent greivances and broadcast their voice internally and to a wider audience – but the comments that Twitter and Facebook have LESS relevance in free press democracies because media are able to openly report I found profoundly disturbing. The journalists both complained that mostly people only share stories generated by TV, newspapers, radio, rather than report from on the ground – sure, but quite often those articles become the background for conversations, agreement/disagreement and highlighting what a reporter might have missed, or a bias. Quite often, and to disagree with Ian, the articles most shared are ones buried deep behind a front page, indicating a desire for the public to highlight issues editors originally felt were unworthy of prominent placement. Not discussed, but also appropriate, is the trend to post articles from widely disparate news organizations which provide different perspectives on the same story.

Ian’s examples on why he feels social media is not in itself a ‘news’ medium raises the question on the role of citizens as journalists. Not everyone wants to be a reporter, not everyone is in a position to do so even if inclined. A recent high school crime incident being the case, where Ian had the expectation the students would instantly create a Twitter hashtag and report while in the middle of what could be a dangerous situation – or the Vancouver Riot, where the complaint seemed to be most were watching on TV. Not mentioned are stories where citizen use of social media was the primary source of material for mainstream news – the Reno air crash, a YouTube video, photos and on scene reports from spectators played on CNN and CBC News well before journalists arrived; the UK riots where journalists could only be placed when social media users reported on gatherings (the Guardian’s Paul Lewis’s coverage a prime example)

For both Frances and Ian, their statement of ‘wanting Twitter to be important’, but not meeting expectations, is intriguing. In my opinion, it IS important as a source of news, but also for so much more. Twitter and Facebook are the mediums where conversations, and opinions, far beyond a circle of work-a-day folks are voiced. It is also wrong to assume that social media in relation to news only has value in limited circumstances. Maybe, from the point of view of a legacy journalist, that is the case – the viewpoint being when ‘real media’ arrive and report, citizen postings instantly become less relevant (?). Many would find that attitude somewhat elitist.

Gen Why Media - Tara Mahoney

Gen Why Media – Tara Mahoney

Credit to Tara Mahony for the remark “Who’s Holding the Mic?” – one of the more profound statements from the entire panel. She is absolutely correct, the ability to broadcast, and influence, has radically shifted from political and media leadership to those who best use the tools, essentially anyone. Certainly some within the media are brilliant examples ( CBC’s Kady O’Malley is a journalist I often note ), but for the most part individual legacy media journalists simply use social media as a broadcast tool, not to the real potential of creating conversations, fostering relationships. Tara also made a vital point that narratives originating from raw feeds, ring far truer, and gain more traction with youth (I would say everyone).

While Jian mentioned Andy Carvin’s ability to obtain both verified breaking news and deep perspective from the Middle East, primarily through Twitter, both Ian and Frances seemed perturbed at the idea of collating and verifying thousands of social media posts to understand a story. Ian especially felt the future would make social media less relevant as more people ‘piled on’. There are a number of responses to that –

One, that point has been breached already where using filters, lists and trusted sources are necessary simply to deal with numbers of users. If journalists are not using available tools, they should.

Two: in many ways, just as in group dynamics, those who post misinformation, attempt to subvert discussions with ideology, or only enter online discussions to disrupt are quickly identified. In effect, social media is in itself a filter, and a platform for accuracy and accountability. A mode of self regulation exists simply through the number of users.

To conclude – there has been, and continues to be, a shift in the dynamic between professional journalists and social media users. Everyone now is their own editor, filter and has the same ability to report, comment and influence. The tools, once the sole domain of journalists, to research, report and broadcast, are available to anyone. The debates, discussions will, and frankly, should continue. There is no final outcome as the platforms themselves are continually adapting the experience, and the number of users might continue to grow, or fizzle.

As always, your views are welcome!
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DiscussionOne Comment

  • Mat Wright Oct 04, 2011 

    While Twitter and to some extent Facebook were the focus for the panel discussion, the initial media take up of Google Plus was fascinating. If Google lives to its promise of opening the G+ experience to pages, and organization identity, it could easily become one of the most powerful ‘media’ or ‘news’ mediums.

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