Transcending The Boundaries Of News

Posted on: January 19, 2013

Why today’s fragmented media landscape is forcing us to question the relevance of professional journalists..

It was the middle of the night in Abbottabad, Pakistan. I.T consultant Sohaib Athar was sat at his laptop to begin a long night of work as his family slept. But something was distracting Mr Athar. “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)” he said to several hundred followers on his Twitter account. Little did he know he had just sent the first report of a piece of American history, the killing of the world’s most wanted terrorist.

After hearing official confirmation of Osama Bin Laden’s death, he realised that he had unwittingly live-tweeted the raid, was inundated with messages and saw his follower count jump to over 50,000.

Sohaib Athar

On the other side of the world in Washington DC, preparations made by producers at Al Jazeera English for the debut episode of their new show The Stream were disrupted by news of Bin Laden’s death. In a last minute schedule shake up, Mr Athar was reached via Twitter and interviewed on Skype during the live show, bringing a whole new meaning to the idea of a ‘world exclusive’.

In fact, the entire point of The Stream is to challenge the rulebook of conventional broadcasting by bringing an online community of social media users together and reporting on the unreported. Using Skype to access guests in a wide variety of locations and bring experts into the live discussions is just one of the ways the programme is demonstrating the advantages of utilizing online platforms and is “becoming a centre of excellence at Al Jazeera”, says Malika Bilal, digital producer and co-host of the show.

Placing social media at the heart of its editorial processes, The Stream brings debates to life with the #AJStream tag and also recognises the value of newcomers Google Plus and Pinterest to aggregate content. It has since received a Royal Television Society Award for its innovative news delivery and most recently a Webby Award which is to be presented to producers at a ceremony next week.

The Stream

So, how are they getting it so right using these participatory tools where others are not? There’s no doubt that the open communications platforms embraced by The Stream have held a microphone up to the voices of those caught up in the Arab Spring uprisings. Capturing the brutal realities of the clashes and the raw emotions of liberated people in real-time, social media has never before played such a “pivotal role in supporting news production and diffusion”, claims academic Chei Sian Lee in her latest article.

Alongside The Stream and content sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr, emerging social media aggregator services such as Storify and Storyful recognise the significance of user-generated content by allowing amateurs to tell the news themselves.

“It’s forcing journalists to get their content into as many places as possible and to prove their value” Global Advocate at Storyful.com, Claire Wardle told me. “Audiences can now choose what they consume”.

News organisations are becoming increasingly aware of this and attempting to keep up with fast paced and dynamic social media tools. Journalists are encouraging audiences to access them through a multitude of channels, from mobile applications and tablet devices to videos and podcasts. Providing live update bulletins on an unfolding story, such as a court case or riot break out, has also proved effective. Undeniably, one of the greatest effects social media has had on journalism is stimulating good old fashioned discussion, a virtual discourse within and between the agenda setters and the people.

Journalism professor Matt Hinckley has claimed the adoption of social media can improve not only the relations with readers, but the quality of concise reporting. “Twitter can help the reporter recognise the edge of a story and edit it to 140 characters, YouTube allows more coverage of stories that TV news often omits and Facebook provides another means for reporters to connect with newsmakers” Hinckley told OurBlook.com.

A professional journalist of today must acknowledge the possibilities of the digital sphere to source news, access witnesses and follow developments. If they are to maintain jurisdiction against the growing impact of social media, news rooms should diverge from their innate conservatism that preaches a one-way mode of communication and what Donald Matheson slates as a “rather static core set of news practices”.

“Twitter is a fantastic way of adding value to existing stories” says Jason Mills, ITV Web Development Editor. ITV News online recently adopted a live stream as part of their drastic redesign in March this year, which visibly takes inspiration from social media formats.

“Digital audiences are getting increasingly used to finding out things as they happen. From Twitter-falls to Facebook timelines, real time is an accepted way of storytelling” Mills explains. As a professional who previously worked with the BBC and Sky, Mills flags up that traditional journalists are giving recognition to a range of sources and beginning to open their gates to social media. “It allows us to curate news from different sources and offer people more than just our own journalism”.

The immediacy at which information reaches audiences, however, is yet another area where social media is hammering tradition. It has become common case for everyday people to break news stories on Twitter and create a buzz before mainstream media have had a chance to confirm reports. If Whitney Houston’s death can initiate over 2.5 million tweets in the hour that it took the Associated Press to confirm her passing, then surely the need for journalists is diminishing.

Not at all, says Mills. “We act as filters for what really is news. Sifting all the information out there to discover what the real story is” he tells me. In the event of the London riots last summer, ITV News’ twitter coverage primarily consisted of debunking rumours and fact checking. “People criticise old media for being slow. It’s necessarily being slow. It’s making sure it’s accurate” he says.

As Pew Internet & American Life Project’s 2010 report concluded, online news has largely become a shared social experience and constant mobile connectivity has turned news awareness “into an anytime, anywhere affair”. Yet our obsession with speed has accelerated the pressure to be first, often at the expense of being correct. Whether it’s tigers walking the streets of London or yet another celebrity Twitter death, social media has poisoned susceptible audiences and journalists with a dose of misinformation in many cases.

Perhaps the risk of inaccurate reports and hoaxes undermine the credibility of social media as a news source and simply reiterate the responsibilities of the journalist to guard the facts. Reuters set the trend for the BBC and Sky by introducing a strict social media policy in 2010 that prohibited their journalists to break news via Twitter, insisting staff have their posts double checked and remain suspicious of unverified online sources.

Ultimately, then, social media has irrevocably changed journalism from two key standpoints. While we expect mainstream media to get more interactive, portable and socially integrated, we also expect them to stand up amongst the sea of voices in public communication. “It adds two way interaction to journalism” says Mills, “but it doesn’t change journalistic values”.

Today, Sohaib Athar can make the news. People are able to “write the first draft of history” as digital media columnist Dan Gillmor puts it. Events such as the Arab Spring could not have been told were it not for social media platforms, yet claims of revolutionary change in news must not be overstated. Social media powers a faster distribution channel for news and adds multiple sources for fact gathering, but only a journalist can do the fact checking.

For Jason Mills, it’s just another tool to add to how journalists operate, and nothing more. “Whatever technological advances have been made and whatever is still to come, journalism in its purest form still remains the same” he insists.


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