How Social Media Creates a Rough Draft of History

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Washington Post  publisher Philip Graham famously described journalism as the “first rough draft of history” in a speech to Newsweek  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, YouTube 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 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 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 and YouTube 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

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