Online obstacles

News at the speed of twitter

By Wallis Snowdon
Journalists face a news set of challenges when navigating online forums like Facebook and Twitter.

By Wallis Snowdon

Journalists are surfing and corresponding on social media sites along with the rest of us. Tweeting, poking, blogging and online networking are changing the way news media functions.

President Obama was off the record when he called Kayne West a ‘jackass’ for interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Music Awards. ABC’s nightline co-anchor Terry Moran overheard Obama’s pre-interview with CNBC and leaked the remarks on his Twitter site.

The comments spread quickly through numerous online forums. Within an hour, Moran deleted his posting of Obama’s remarks. Regardless, the information was exposed to at least one million people, the number of Moran’s Twitter site followers.

Social media disrupts traditional reporting techniques by increasing the urgency of the news cycle. Social media disables journalists who want to correct their mistakes, by expanding the way information travels and enables journalists’ easy access to sources. Individual and organizational privacy is being redefined as the line between public and private spaces shift.

The number of people participating in social media forums like Facebook and Twitter is on the rise. Facebook has more than 400 million active users worldwide, who collectively spend six billion minutes on the site each day. Visits to Twitter grew about sixty percent in six months last year.

Fast, with no filter

Rob Washburn, Innovations editor of J- and professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College, Ontario, says the coverage of Obama’s remarks on Kayne West is an example of how social media fuels the spread of information.

“Within an hour that piece of news was transmitted globally,” says Washburn.

Mitchell Hunter is a social media expert and account coordinator at Modern Media, an online marketing firm located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He thinks that social media is a research tool required in today’s fast-paced media environment.

“We don’t live in a next day news environment anymore. We live in a current, real time news environment. People want their information as it happens,” says Hunter.

Gail Lethbridge, a freelance columnist with the Chronicle Herald and avid blogger says the technology of social media is disruptive to traditional news gathering. The public’s desire for perpetual news has led to a lack of organizational control over content.

Lisa Lynch, Journalism Research Editor at and Assistant Professor of Journalism at Concordia University, says that many sources don’t understand how much of their online information is made public.
Lisa Lynch, journalism research editor at and assistant professor of journalism at Concordia University, says that many sources don’t understand how much of their online information is made public.

“[In the past news was] filtered through the organization and filtered through the editor, the copy editor, headline writers and the double checkers and that was how news was delivered, but with social media anybody can put stuff out there and it can become news overnight,” says Lethbridge.

The Alaska Report is said to be the first source of Sarah Palin’s recent divorce rumours. The story moved rapidly online, through Twitter posts. CNN picked up the story, telling its viewers of the rumours circulating online. Palin’s spokesperson denied the rumors through a note posted on Palin’s Facebook page.

Lisa Lynch is Journalism Research Editor, J-Source, and assistant professor of journalism at Concordia University. She says that the immediacy of Twitter made the Palin coverage confusing. Sarah Palin’s camp blamed the media for spreading the rumours and the public was skeptical about accepting the truth of a Facebook retraction over the coverage provided by CNN.

“It’s paper, rock, scissors now. Who outranks who in terms of how to eliminate that? And there was a lot of soul searching in days afterwards about what people’s responsibility was in terms of spreading rumors or repeating information that they hear,” says Lynch.

Washburn says that the unpredictable way that information travels online poses a threat to journalistic credibility and accountability.

“You might get [the information] out there and it moves one way and then if you had to correct it, or you wanted to do more, is it going to follow the same viral path as the original message did?” says Washburn.

Kevin Cox, managing editor of the local business site, mirrors this concern. He says that journalists put themselves in both legal and moral danger when they lose the ability to correct their mistakes.

Alfred Hermida, a digital media scholar and professor at the integrated journalism programme at the University of British Colombia says that the way that journalism traditionally operates is challenged by social media.

“Traditionally, journalists focus on content and [in] social media the focus is on connectivity. The focus is about participating and sharing,” says Hermida.

Hermida says that participation in social media has made for an abundance and diversity in news. No longer does our news fit neatly on the pages of a newspaper, our editors within the four walls of the local newsroom.

“The editorial role that was once in the hands of, often, a bunch of rich, white, middle-aged men has now been shifted to the crowd,” says Hermida.

Social Media Making Headlines
Rumours that Sarah Palin was getting a divorce spread quickly online.
Obama’s off-the record remarks on Kayne West were ‘tweeted’ globally.
Twitter emerged as an important forum in the coverage of Iran’s presidential elections.
Canada’s Privacy Commissioners investigated the structure of Facebook after a complaint from the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic.
Tailor your information to your specific audiences called micro-audiences.(Rob Washburn, Innovations Editor of J- and professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College, Ontario).
Let your followers help generate ideas for you(Rob Washburn, Innovations Editor of J- and professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College, Ontario).
Keep separate public and private accounts on any social media site to ensure professionalism and privacy.(Mitchell Hunter, Social Media Expert, Modern Media, Nova Scotia).
Maintain a healthy skepticism and double verify your sources.(Jeff Keay, Media Relations, CBC).
Consider the intended audience when considering the publication of user-generated content.(Alfred Hermida, Professor, Ontario).
Hold your reporting to same fundamentals you would any other story prior to publication(Rob Washburn, Innovations Editor of J- and professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College, Ontario).
Check your newsroom policy and develop a personal code of ethics on the use of social media before you research online(Lisa Lynch, Journalism Research Editor at J-Source and Assistant Professor of Journalism at Concordia University).

Debate in the newsroom

Journalists access personal blogs, contact information, photographs and demographic information through social media forums. The virtual paper trail created by social networking is a rich database for reporters, but not all the information found online is valuable for media organizations that want to maintain credibility. Social media is an unwieldy tool for journalists.

Lynch says this shift in the online media landscape presents a paradox for the future of journalism.

“Media outlets, on one hand, have been trying to exploit social media but on the other hand trying to control its use in their own organizations,” says Lynch.

Jeff Keay, media relations officer for CBC, says the organization recognizes the complicated role social media plays in journalism research and delivery.

“The internet amplifies your ability to get out there and cover a lot of ground with regards to information, but that comes with risks,” says Keay.

The CBC does not have specific policies on the use of social media as a research tool, but advises its journalists to maintain credibility while working with online sources by double verifying information found online.

Cox says that social media consists of formalized gossip and conversation, a difficult environment for factual news gathering.

“It’s a jungle when you try and sort through it,” says Cox.

Cox restricts the use of social media within his news organization. His team cites user-generated content only when the information is verifiable or when a memorial page is created for a deceased person.

“I don’t think [using social media as a source] is an ethical question. I just don’t think most of the stuff is true,” says Cox.

A twisted web

Loyalist’s Rob Washburn, Ontario, says the lack of context and control provided within social media is problematic for reporters.

Washburn says the 140 character space provided for comments on Twitter is not enough. The structure of social media forums can limit a journalist’s ability to provide context.

“Things can be misinterpreted, they can be misunderstood and what are the ramifications of that?” says Washburn.

Lynch and Hermida say the use of social media forums as a tool in journalism research can create bias. Lynch says that by using your own social network to generate content your sources are self-selected. Hermida explains that social networking sites do not fairly represent a cross-section demographically.

“Its going to be almost by definition skewed toward to a college-educated professional range of sources,” says Hermida.

Lives wide shut

The spread of Obama’s remarks online demonstrate how even protected information is broadcast quickly and easily. President Obama is not the only one to experience the sting of social media forums.

“People want to be on stage. But, of course, when bad things happen, they try and hide it but you can’t,” says Cox.

Lynch says that the line between public and private is not clear to everyone.

“One of the big questions with social media; how much people understand, how public their utterances are, and who actually owns them,” says Lynch.

Lynch uses Wikileaks, an international whistle blowing site, to research user demographics. The Twitter feed for Wikileaks allows Lynch to track people’s online affiliations. The followers for the site range from avid Sarah Palin fans to white supremacists. Although Lynch has no qualms about her research, she realizes that many of her subjects would be squeamish if they knew what she was up to.

“I have a data set by a group of people who individually have decided to report certain things but who collectively would probably not want to be scrutinized in the way that I’m scrutinizing them. It’s just the accident of the structure of Twitter that allows me to do that kind of research,” says Lynch.

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Rob Washburn, Innovations editor of J- and professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College, Ontario, says that the speed at which information travels online threatens journalistic credibility.

Hermida says the use of social media as a research tool can be seen as invasive. Journalists covering the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007 used Facebook as a source for commentary.

“It was almost as if the students arranged to meet and discuss their grief [online] and left the door open,” says Hermida.

Although these comments were posted publicly the students felt as if their privacy was compromised by the coverage. Hermida says the emergence of social media has sparked new concerns over privacy.

“You can’t assume just because something is publicly available online that it was intended for public distribution,” says Hermida.

The instant and unruly structure of social networking sites is creating change in the media by increasing the risks of reporting. A journalist’s errors in reporting are further amplified by the immediacy and speed of the news cycle.

Despite the fact that a vast array of sources may be found instantly, they may be chosen from a network lacking in diversity. Bias is cultivated in an environment of numerous virtual networks.

The abundance of personal information exposed online, threatens individual privacy and complicates decisions over publication. There is a lack of consensus on the solutions to the issues surrounding social media and reporting. News organizations are struggling to adapt, while maintaining journalistic integrity.

“I think we need to step back a little bit and ask ‘is this [change] meeting the principles and practices that we honour?’ If it’s transforming them, are those transformations what we as journalists want? Are [they] good for journalism and good for the public that we serve?” says Washburn.