As Twitter celebrates its fifth birthday it becomes clear that the social network site is not just about revelling in how many followers you have, or what your favourite celebrity is busy doing. It has become a space where everyone is free to upload, inform and comment on ‘news’. Journalism is changing in the fact that the citizen is no longer a passive audience but has become, as Paul Staffo quoted in the Economist, an “active participant in the creation”.
The microblogging site known as Twitter is acknowledged for its fast-paced news reporting, uploaded by both professional journalists and the public. Studies have indicated that one of the motivational reasons for using Twitter is for information purposes. In other words, people increasingly use the site to gain and follow information. As of recent, Twitter has become a breaking news tool, playing an essential role in informing the masses in times of a crisis. In an interview with social media expert, Jo Da Silva, she explains that Twitter is where the information goes first and it is often from people experiencing the event first hand, which she adds is what “journalism should be about”.
This involvement of citizen journalism can be seen in the social outlet of blogging, this medium is encouraging in the fact that anyone and everyone can write a blog and be a part of the process. Bloggers have “acquired a certain level of influence by setting the agenda of what the big media should cover,” Rosales argues. Similar to Twitter, personal blogs have become successful in informing the public in a time of crisis. The live blogging of Al Jazeera was a focal point for information during the protests in Egypt, as information and user generated content (UGC) were streamed worldwide.
In these times of crisis, communication which is usually taken for granted became unavailable. During the recent Tokyo Earthquake phone lines were cut off within an hour of the first quake, similarly, all communication was down during the Haiti earthquake, and throughout the protests in Egypt there was minimal access to the internet. Social media became the sole distributor of information worldwide, during which time, the most involving and relevant information came directly from first hand experiences. Due to social media’s universal usability, and the benefits of Web 2.0, the public were (and still are) able to spread the news like wildfire.
I interviewed David Ricketts, a senior reporter for Ignite Europe, to establish the perspective from a professional journalist. In reference to the student protests of London 2010, David commented on the coverage received and made a clear distinction between the two forms of reporting the event. He described how national news stations were providing an overview of the action from (most likely) a helicopter, whereas “journalists in the thick of the action were able to give a minute by minute update of what was going on at ground level”.
Social media is an essential tool in broadcasting first-account experiences. An hour after the initial quake hit in Japan, tweets from Tokyo reached 1,200 per minute as this was seen as the quickest and most effective way to get accomplish the wildfire effect.
This becomes clear when you read this tweet from India, available from memeburn,com: @Hussy26 said, “Miyagi is centre of earthquake..all nuclear centers has been closed, visuals are stunningly dangerous…tsunami everywhere.”
Likewise, eye-witnesses at the scene of the Discovery Channel hostage situation in 2010 tweeted the action which broke the news to the masses. The following tweet, cited by James Calder, was one of the earliest to be uploaded: @wasroykosuge said, “A bunch of cops w guns and machine guns drawn surrounding the #discovery corporate building.”
Twitter’s limit of 140 characters allows people to communicate with as little misunderstanding as possible, an essential in a crisis.
National newspapers and news channels have praised the social media outlets in recent years for the informative content available. The Guardian ran a story in response to the Haiti earthquake acknowledging the effectiveness of the social media in spreading news. Similarly, the 2005 underground and bus bombings in London received material from the public that was for the first time “considered more newsworthy than professional content,” according to Torin Douglas. Images and videos uploaded by the public was information that led the BBC television newscasts.
A similar approach was taken during the Haiti earthquake. According to The Guardian, the vice president of news station CNN immediately moved someone supervising social media and the iReports to the ‘Haiti desk’.
The influence of social media and UGC has certainly kept professional journalists on their toes. As its usage is increasingly spreading into the mainstream media, leading the BBC news broadcast and breaking news to the masses through tweets, does this compromise the position of journalists today? I asked David if the notion of Rosales’ argument that “today, anyone can become a media mogul” could determine a decline for professional journalism.
David acknowledges this argument, however he says; “the proliferation of all this material only heightens the need for good quality journalists to disseminate the material out there and relay this in a way that is concise and easy for readers to digest.” Robert Niles advised, via OJR, that in a breaking news story, journalists need to strive to find the best sources in the community and to share these identities with the reader. David further adds that “journalism is much more of a craft”, making a clear distinction between professional and citizen journalism.
Through the constant updating and new trends, it is essential for professional journalists to remain on the ball. Journalists are having to adopt to this fundamental shift in communication, pivoting between using the community as a source and as an audience. Deuze, an academic in social media, argues the presence of UGC challenges the established modes of journalism, undermining the “we write, you read” dogma. The participation of the masses in social media has resulted in a shift in the role of the journalist, as expert Jo clarifies, “the ‘news’ is not only seen through the eyes of the reporter.”
This is a process which newer and younger journalists may find easy to adapt to, but spare a thought for the journalist from the older generation who can remember a time press releases were received via a courier bike. David started as a journalist just over three years ago and has always been familiar with using the internet as a form of research and communication. He says, “Social media is a just an extension of that and another form of communication for me.”
It is extremely beneficial for journalists to exercise this tool in publicising their work. Deputy Editor, Rob Langston says social media has allowed his company; What Investment to “connect with a wide-ranging and far-flung audience”, which allows them to respond quickly to feedback. For David, Twitter is good way to communicate and share ideas with fellow financial reporters from various publications and national newspapers. However, caution should be exercised in the handling of this powerful tool. Due to the bottomless amount of noise on the internet, it is hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. Robert Niles adds: the effect of “massive retweeting allows false information to spread globally”.
“So, is social media reshaping journalistic practises?” I ask David.
“Well”, he answers, “let’s put it this way”, I’m sure politicians never thought five years ago that their debates in the House of Commons would ever be tweeted by political journalists to the online masses!”
And on that note, I leave you with my optimistic reasoning that the future of social media can only get bigger and better, especially in an inevitable increase of mainstream involvement. I am confident social media will continue to grow and develop, while the professional journalists will still be attributed for their efficient communication and craft of writing.