We can all remember where we were when the big news stories of our time stopped us in our tracks. But so accustomed have we become to hearing about breaking news on social media first, many of us are going to have strikingly similar answers when we’re asked that age old ‘where were you when…’ question about the defining events of our generation. With weary familiarity we’ll say we were in front of our phone, tablet or computer – staring at Twitter.
Social media has undeniably changed the game for journalists, as much in terms of how they find news as break it. The big stories of 2013, from the Boston bombings to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, emerged in all their distressing detail on Twitter before any major news outlet. Even then, some of the most compelling coverage of these stories was to be found in the eyewitness amateur accounts and imagery that surfaced online in the immediate aftermath. Mainstream news outlets are expected to keep up with this constant, unmediated flow. “People check us more on social media than going to the website itself,” Al Jazeera reporter Basma Tassi tells The Drum. “Our whole work as journalists has changed completely.”
The unrelenting demands of social media put journalists under enormous pressure to ‘turn a story around’ quickly. As Tassi notes, there is a lot of competition, and it isn’t just coming from fellow reporters: “Let’s say we have breaking news, an explosion in a country. We have to tweet it, blog it, write the story, put out a breaking news banner, call our correspondent, contact local people and all of this within minutes. In our minds we always have to get the story first, but accurately.”
At Channel 4 News there is a similar desire to be first with the story, but the practical limitations of having a smaller team than rivals such as ITV, BBC and Sky mean that isn’t always achievable. “I don’t think being first will ever lose its cache,” says Anna Doble, head of online at C4 News. “It’s a brilliant thing: we all want to tell the news in the world we live in quickly and accurately. What we do is we try to add value. We try to bring meaning and value to what is happening in the world. We may not be first, but we will certainly be quite near and when we do tell you the story we hope we make sense of it.”
All this is not to say that social media is a burden to journalists – far from it. Tassi explains that at Al Jazeera it’s treated as a hugely valuable tool to source and tell important stories that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day: “With the lack of access to so many countries, such as Syria, we’ve had to rely on social media. We try to find the best way to make use of social media to get accurate information. A lot of time is spent on how we verify social media information.”
Verifying that information isn’t easy, but Tassi says Al Jazeera draws on the trained eye of its multicultural team to separate the useful information from the duds: “I’m from Syria, so it’s much easier to verify, to call people, to ask them to try to track down a Twitter user, a YouTube user. We really make use of our international team and our country-based specialisations. It’s about having the eye: this looks correct, this doesn’t look correct. Mainly it’s the skills of our journalists who know the language, who know people in the country.”
Clearly social can play an important role in the newsgathering process, but savvy publishers – big and small – are also realising its potential to help grow their audiences. The Lincolnite, a hyperlocal news site for the Lincoln area which won the chairman’s award at the Online Media Awards, has embraced Facebook to engage its readership. “We’re quite community focused,” says associate editor Elizabeth Fish. “We take quite a lot of what our readers say into consideration when we’re doing design, how we use our social media, the kind of stories we do. Facebook is our most popular social channel. Rather than just putting links on there, we try to engage people with discussion or a big picture of the day. I think you can be quite lighthearted as well as giving the important news. You don’t need to go with exactly what your readers say, but you have to do what’s right for them.”
Few news outlets are as savvy when it comes to the web as the Huffington Post, whose editor Carla Busazi is the Online Media Awards’ online editor of the year for the second-year running. Busazi clearly knows how to push people’s buttons online: “I genuinely think the British public were crying out for a platform where they could get their views across,” Buzasi says as HuffPo UK approaches its second birthday. “The British media is polarised so you can only have one set of political beliefs, but we celebrate all beliefs. We invite conversation, we invite debate, and I think it’s really connected with the British public and that’s why they’re coming to the HuffPo UK every day not only to get their news but to blog, and to comment and share content. It’s very different to what else is out there.”
And just as news breaks on social first, so too is it the place to find what your readers really think of you. “I think the old days when editors held their readers at arm’s length is definitely over,” Buzasi says. “We interact with them minute by minute. What are they interested in, what are we interested in, how can we create a dialogue? That’s a huge difference to how media behaved in previous decades. My email address is very well known so I get a lot of emails, a lot of tweets, and I love that. It tells me if I’m doing a good job or a bad job.” Like everyone else, Buzasi hears it on social first.