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How Social Media Creates a Rough Draft of History

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Washington Post (s wpo) publisher Philip Graham famously described journalism as the “first rough draft of history” in a speech to Newsweek (s iaci) correspondents in 1963 — but as a new research paper from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism notes, that role is increasingly being played by social media such as Twitter, Flickr, (s yhoo) YouTube (s goog) and Facebook. The latest example is the coverage of the Osama bin Laden raid, which triggered questions about whether the person sharing news via social media was a journalist or not. As the Reuters (s tri) paper confirms, those kinds of questions are becoming increasingly moot, as journalism is distributed to anyone with a smartphone.

Nicola Bruno did the research for the Reuters Institute during a recent fellowship at Oxford, and focused on the reporting of the earthquake in Haiti in January of last year, which Foreign Policy associate editor Joshua Keating has called “the first Twitter disaster.” Based on interviews with a number of other journalists and media analysts, Bruno draws a direct link between the way CNN (s twx) changed the nature of media during the Gulf War, and the way Twitter has changed reporting and journalism:

CNN coverage… soon became emblematic of what several experts defined as the CNN effect — that is, according to Joseph Nye [former Secretary of Defense and head of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard], “the impact of the increased free flow of broadcast information and shortened news cycles on public opinion in free societies.”

As quoted in Bruno’s paper (a PDF version of which is here), journalist Nik Gowing argues, “in a moment of a crisis, what is the difference — if any — between the staff reporter who observes, writes, blogs, then files an article for an established media organisation, and the motivated amateur or quasi-professional who does exactly the same for a web or blog site?” This is exactly the debate that has been taking place about Sohaib Athar, the Pakistani computer programmer who live-tweeted the recent U.S. military raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.

As we’ve pointed out before, what Bruno and the media sources he interviewed for his research paper are describing is the dismantling of what we call journalism into its component parts, and the creation of a new ecosystem of news. Some of this is performed by amateurs or “citizen journalists” — in what Andy Carvin of NPR has called “random acts of journalism” — and some is performed by traditional or mainstream writers, editors and curators. Guardian writer and live-blogger Matthew Weaver describes the process to Bruno as: “first the tweets come, then the pictures, then the video, and then the wires.”

While some traditional journalists don’t seem to like this phenomenon (as the comments on this Poynter Institute piece illustrate), Bruno points out in his paper that all of this “crowdsourced” content can help media organizations fill what some call the “news vacuum” that often follows spontaneous news events such as the Haiti earthquake, when traditional journalists are still trying to get to the location of the disaster. CNN, in particular, has made good use of Twitter reports, Flickr photos (s yhoo) and YouTube (s goog) videos in such situations, says Bruno, along with other content contributed through its iReport “citizen journalism” platform, while the BBC has a “user-generated content” hub specifically designed to pull in those kinds of reports.

One of the issues Bruno’s paper looks at is whether the rush to fill that vacuum of real-time news is having a negative effect on the accuracy of the news. He concludes it is, saying there is some reason to believe the acceleration of the news cycle:

is eroding the journalistic standards of the reliability and verification of the news. The various interviews and analysis gathered in this research paper illustrates how… The Guardian and CNN chose speed versus verification for spreading their information. The “tweet first, verify later” approach is a great help for source diversification and leads to richer coverage. But this strategy also seems very dangerous for one of journalism’s golden rules: each news story must be verified first.

This makes it even more important that traditional media outlets focus on verifying these kinds of reports, says Bruno — who predicts that more reporters will become “reporter-curators” (a job Andy Carvin at NPR is arguably helping to define by doing just that during the recent events in the Middle East), and use the content from Twitter and other social media as the source material for more comprehensive reporting or journalism. Former foreign correspondent Burt Herman built Storify to make this easier for bloggers and journalists.

Bruno’s paper makes for a fascinating play-by-play of how social media helped define the reporting of a significant news event. And despite the errors and mis-information that can occur, he argues one of the benefits of the “Twitter effect” is it “promotes an idea (and practice) of a journalism more oriented to the process of news-making and more open to a diversity of sources than traditional mainstream coverage.” That’s the real lesson of how social media is changing media: It’s making it more open, and allowing for many different sources, and that’s fundamentally a positive change.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of NBC photographer Richard Engel and Flickr user Yan Arief

6 Responses to “How Social Media Creates a Rough Draft of History”

  1. I’m still waiting for the first Skype or FaceTime report live from a breaking news event, where a CNN anchor is talking to a citizen journalist live on the scene.

    I’m sure it will happen soon enough.

  2. Great article. One of the most reasonable approaches I’ve seen to this “new ecosystem.” I love my social media feeds and frequently wow colleagues with how many stories I can follow at any given time. However, I really miss the channels I once had for curated news (I regularly lament the end of Slate’s “Today’s Papers,” for example).

    I hope the traditional journalists eventually tire of trying to compete in the social media domain and focus more on what they can do in this vacuum you’ve identified. Andy Carvin’s work is an excellent example of this. He has turned the social media channel back around into a verification tool. It isn’t just about broadcasting. And Wolf Blitzer reading what often seem like random tweets into his broadcast is a simply miserable attempt.

    I’m a news junkie who would gladly tune back into traditional channels if they dared to innovate when it came to thinking about their role. Through social media our view of history has literally turned into the model of “one damn thing after another.” I think there’s plenty of room yet in that space where these minute-by-minute tidbits are stitched back together into a genuine story that reveals something more about how life is lived, battles won, and obstacles overcome.

  3. Excellent article, Mathew.

    I’m a reporter who made the leap into tech, building a citizen photojournalism platform launching in the next few weeks. I spend a lot of time thinking about this very issue, and I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head.

    Social media is revolutionary because it compresses the eyewitness information cycle to nearly zero. 10 years ago (or really, even 5 years ago) reporters would have to hustle to find eyewitnesses — calling nearby shopkeepers, going to the scene and trying to round up people on the street, etc. Now, you can simply search for people broadcasting from the event and talk to them instantly.

    Social media doesn’t fundamentally change the work reporters do: We still discover, vet, structure and report credible information. The big change with social media is the pressure to be instant, because your competitors are instant. So, the first draft is a little messy.

    I like to imagine a spontaneous news event like a pebble dropping into a pond. Who witnesses the event? And how does the account of that event ripple out? How far does that ripple go? Some events are so big, everyone in the world knows about it within the hour.

    It’s physically impossible to be at the epicenter of every news event, every time. The promise on the horizon is that we’ll be able to experience every event live, from the perspective of eyewitnesses there at the scene. That vision requires a radically different kind of social network — one that’s married to location, not keywords. We’re building that network.

    Again, great article. This is an important topic.

  4. It’s no brainer to see that social media is here to stay for good. Given vast variety of the existing channels to choose and stick with, it’s time for such a hot space to enter into a new category. There is a need for a portal to provide a quick and intelligent decision for both the consumer and the enterprise about their online connections.

    A Platform to Help us to Distinguish Our Quality vs. Quantity Friends, Fans, Followers, and Companies

    Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube, Flickr and others have been doing a decent job of providing additional marketing exposure and even in some cases, additional revenue. However, as more and more social networking sites pop up, how do you manage your brand across all these channels? Maybe more importantly, which one of these sites should you select as the one that will help you best reach your target audience? The proliferation of the social media avenues is becoming overwhelming.

    This glut of information reminds me of the early 90’s when WWW was adopted broadly by the general public. Every company rushed to have a presence, to the point it became literally impossible to find the right information on the Web. That’s when a better generation of search engines – at first the Yahoo! and then Google – entered the market and helped us find the most relevant information by just typing simple keywords in their search box. If you had asked before Google launched, if there was a need for another search engine – most would have said no, we already have those….

    Then came Web 1.0 & 2.0 – Youtube, Flickr, myspace, Facebook, Twitter and countless others have turned everyday people into content producers, influencers and experts. We basically tripled down on the information overload How do you know which channels to select for deploying your social media strategy? How do you know which one is the right channel to let your fans and followers to find you, your products, and services? Most importantly, who is Joe Smith that is recommending that person, that company, that product?

    I hope my can accomplish such a mission. The site is not another social networking platform. Yet the portal to all your existing social media channels. The platform helps you, your fans, your potential clients to make an intelligent decision as to which company to connect to or follow via which social media channels and why? It’s free!

    CEO & Founder

  5. I agree on verification negative but generally, it is broadening the concept of ‘journalism’ and the definition of a journalist. We no longer have to rely on a person (who has personal preferences, views & judgments). The focus of journalism has truly shifted to content from source of that content.