A Virtual Unknown

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The new journalism of the social media

Jim Willis Modified: October 7, 2013 at 10:05 am •  Published: October 6, 2013

I live in Southern California about 15 miles east of Pasadena, a city known for having some of the best scientists in the world who work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). If you’re interested in going to work for things involving rockets and space exploration, this is your Valhalla.

So I was surprised last night to hear that the JPL scientists first learned of the large astroid that hit Russia earlier this year — narrowly missing a city of 1 million people — not from their telescopes or scientific algorithms.

They learned about it from Twitter.

President Barack Obama stands with Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama stands with Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Blinded by the light

Because the astroid was approaching during daylight and was entering directly in the path of the sun, literally no one saw it coming until some Russians saw it at close range streaking in, seconds before impact. They took to their smart phones and began tweeting, and the JPL folks saw the tweets.

It was the latest in a sea of evidence that the social media are the new norm in the way so many of us — from JPL sceintists, to journalists, to unskilled labor — learn what is happening in the world.

And we often learn of that news while we are doing other things. We aren’t even actively looking for information.

The news finds us

There’s a mantra among journalists these days that speaks both to news consumers as well as reporters: “We no longer search for the news; the news finds us.” And it finds us by way of the social media where so many of us are hanging out.

Two researchers from Louisiana State University, Keren Henderson and Andrea Miller, have been studying the use of Twitter in the modern-day newsroom and have come up with some enlightening findings. In part, they note in an essay for an upcoming book:

Impact is profound

“By June of 2012, Twitter hosted more than 500 million accounts. Regardless of how many of these accounts are actually real and active,the site’s users generate some 400 million tweets daily. More public relations professionals utilize Facebook, Twitter and YouTube than any other group.

“For that reason, Twitter is also a useful source of news information for journalists insomuch as it provides a constant stream of discussion from nearly every corner of the earth.”

Made for the times

The researchers point out that journalists are not replacing traditional sources with social media sources, but that they are using these new kinds of sources to supplement and round out their stories. There are at least two key reasons for that:

1. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle where the deadlines come every minute and the newsroom budgets for reporters is shrinking, it is helpful to be able to find instant sources in sites like Twitter and Facebook.

2. In fact, the public forums of the day are being held — not down at city hall — but in social media sites like these. That’s where the public is gathering, and that’s where they are talking about issues of the day.

Michael Sheen shown at  the premiere screening of MASTERS OF SEX, hosted by SHOWTiME and SONY PICTURES TELEVISION, on Thursday, September 26, 2013 at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.  (Photo by Scott Gries/Invision for SHOWTIME/AP Images)
Michael Sheen shown at the premiere screening of MASTERS OF SEX, hosted by SHOWTiME and SONY PICTURES TELEVISION, on Thursday, September 26, 2013 at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/Invision for SHOWTIME/AP Images)

In my own journalism classes, I tell my students that the social media offer great places to go to tap into the conversation that everyday people are having about events and issues of the day. So social media sourcing should be used more for reactions people have to policies and events, and shouldn’t be used for primary sourcing.

A double role

It is important to note, also, that the news media use Twitter and Facebook to promote their own newscasts and newspapers by tweeting about the stories they are carrying. So the social media serve not only as a news tool, but also a promotional one.

Many news stories today have their genesis on Twitter or Facebook, before they ever reach the newscast or the newspaper.

News bubbles up

A case in point is a story that broke at my own university two weeks ago about a theology professor who informed the administration that he is a transgender male. He had served the school for 15 years as a female, hiding his heartfelt identity as a male. The administration began negotiating with the professor to vacate his position.

The professor began talking about it on his Facebook Page, which in today’s age is tantamount to broadcasting it publicly. The story went viral and, within hours, was picked up the news media. Soon it was on the evening news of local LA television stations.

Journalists are trying to figure out the rules and standards associated with these social media which didn’t even exist a decade ago. One thing is certain, however: It’s hard for any of us to stay isolated from the news of the day for long, no matter how hard some try to do so.