Are blogs and Twitter positively influencing journalism? How can niche reporters take advantage of social media? These are some of the questions answered by a panel of media experts at Toronto's mesh conference.
DigitalJournal.com attended a panel session on the changing face of journalism due to the popularity of Facebook, Twitter and niche blogs. The talk was part of the 2010 mesh conference, an annual meeting-of-online-minds where Web trends are discussed and dissected.
Joanna Smith, an Ottawa correspondent for the Toronto Star, first spoke on her work in Haiti during the devastating earthquake. She used social media to alert readers and colleagues about the crisis in real-time. "When SMS went down, I used email, and I instantly could tell what content was striking readers," she told the crowded room in the MaRS Centre.
One of the challenges using social media with such a powerful story was self-editing. Smith didn't feel comfortable tweeting everything on her mind, she said. "I stopped myself from tweeting about how hungry I was in Haiti because everyone else had it so much worse," she remembers. "And I didn't list any names of the dead because I didn't want family members to learn about that the hard way."
The New York Times made sure to harness Twitter's real-time advantage during the Haiti earthquake. Jennifer Preston, social media editor at the Times, said she created a Twitter list to cull all the appropriate news about Haiti. She then placed this module in the Times' popular Lede blog. "Twitter is a very useful reporting tool," she said. "The opportunity to use social media to grab a piece of the real-time Web to share news is one of the most terrific things we've come across in the past year."
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU and well-known media critic, was then asked by moderator Matthew Ingram asked if the rise of social media in newsroom was good for journalism. "Yes," he answered bluntly, then followed up with: "The journalism professional developed the attitude of keeping people out of the press -- keeping PR, government and businesspeople out of the press. But blogging and social media is destroying that...and today's news can be democratizing because it wears away at the crud attached to supposed professionalism."
Ingram explained why some journalists have been skeptical about using Twitter or working with professional bloggers. Ingram said when he worked at the Canadian newspaper The Globe & Mail as Communities Manager, he had a tough time convincing reporters to use Twitter to let readers know they are looking for sources and interviews. "The biggest complaint I got was 'But then everyone will know what story I'm working on. I don't want people to know that'. There's a lot of competition out there."
Smith admits she was in that camp for awhile but then warmed up to using Twitter once she saw its upside. When she worked on her H1N1 coverage for the Star, she got unsolicited advice from not only epidemiologists but also mothers with kids hit by pneumonia. Suddenly, she had experts and interview subjects messaging her through the micro-blogging service. "That allowed me to throw a few curveball questions to health officials," she said.
Jay Rosen is a journalism professor at New York University and a leading authority on citizen media
The discussion was momentarily steered to how pro journalists are working with citizen journalists. Rosen, known as a foremost authority on this topic, wondered what makes a journalist a "professional." He said if you seek out information, retrieve it, do extra work to fact-check then that separates you from three-quarters of writers online. "What's gone is the idea that professional journalists know something and you don't. The authority of a journalist begins with 'Let me tell you about something.' And that's not the exclusive territory of a professional journalist."
Finally, the panelists offered some suggestions to both Web companies and media outlets. Rosen wondered why Twitter doesn't develop a rating system for Twitter feeds in order to judge the reputation of a users' tweets (especially useful for news editors looking for trusted sources on the ground during an overseas disaster).
Rosen went on to advise beat reporters to work with niche bloggers on their topic. "The biggest problem some people have with Twitter is figuring out what to write," he said. "But listen to people involved in a certain niche or beat and you suddenly can find out what's being discussed." He said he's shocked most journalists don't follow this simple step.
DigitalJournal.com video-interviewed Jay Rosen at mesh and the video report will soon be posted on DigitalJournal.com. Subscribe to this author's articles to be notified about upcoming coverage