Journalism and Social Media

Without making light of the events that have made it one of the biggest stories of 2014, it’s safe to say that Ferguson, USA has become an invaluable case study in social media’s impact on journalism and activism.


photo by Robert Cohen, St Louis Post-Dispatch

Consider, for example, activist Shaun White’s exposé on police corruption surrounding the Ferguson shooting. The page is actually a series of White’s tweets compiled on Storify, a service that allows users to create cohesive, standalone stories using posts on platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Similarly documented on Storify were the controversial arrests of journalists Wesley Lowery (Washington Post) and Ryan Reilly (Huffington Post). Ferguson police officers arrested and detained the two reporters (for reasons unknown), and Lowery tweeted (and recorded video of) the entire incident, giving readers the almost real-time account of the incident a sense of immediacy that a more traditional news story would have struggled to attain. The Washington Post later examined “How social media freed” the pair.
For better or for worse, Storify’s format feels like a peek into the future of journalism. It presents information briefly and concisely, makes heavy use of original source material, and remains more directly connected with readers (notice the visible favorite and retweet stats) than any other current news format.
As an activist, White is a citizen journalist, and we spoke at length about how social media empowers ordinary citizens to commit random acts of journalism. However, as Guardian UK journalist Paul Lewis explains in this video, social media also presents many opportunities to reporters.
Lewis also touches on one of social media’s pitfalls: misinformation spreads as quickly as facts and truth. Numerous racist images and rumors went viral in the wake of the Ferguson shooting, but this one, alleging that popular peacemaker Capt. Ron Johnson was flashing gang signals with residents, is of particular note. It was first posted on CNN’s iReport user-submitted news service, and thus had a veneer of credibility.
So how do we apply this status quo shift to our approach to journalism in T&T?
A reporter doesn’t need to maintain a blog or post his or her work online. However, I believe that all reporters should keep an eye on Facebook, Twitter, discussion forums and the commentary feeds beneath their own stories.

In fact, I’ll take it one step further and suggest that each local newspaper should designate an internet savvy reporter to observe these avenues on a daily basis, quietly become a part of internet forums where possible, and produce stories (or story ideas) based on our active online communities. Our online communities regularly generate valuable, diverse feature opportunities, and sometimes contain crucial clues for more weighty news.


For example, if the Guardian kept a closer watch of the TTOnline forum linked off their own website, they’d be surprised at the number of interesting stories they’d have caught wind of over the last few years. Or the number of people they’ve reported on who regularly post quite revealing information right under their noses. And TTOnline pales in comparison to Trinituner.

A social media desk is no longer innovative or novel…it’s a necessity. And it has to be a specialized role. You can’t simply take a reporter from another beat and expect them to get to the most out of stories like these…especially when you also probably expect that reporter to juggle two other totally unrelated stories that same day. It’s unrealistic, unreasonable and unfair to the reporter.

Your online reporter has to be someone who knows their way around, and is part of, the online community. Someone who tweets, blogs, posts on Facebook, keeps up with their RSS feeds and podcasts, and quietly interacts with the unknowing public on forums.

The investment will pay off: You’ll attract the attention of the sort of people who don’t usually read newspapers, and encourage your mostly offline readers to explore the internet, hopefully using your own paper’s site as a portal.

It’s the perfect role for one of those cub reporters, fresh out of school, enthusiastic and energetic, but not too familiar with the outside world. Instead of burning them out on some uninspiring and frustrating beat, take advantage of their strengths and let them help you explore this increasingly vital frontier.


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