We hear every day that social media has changed the way we do things. We hear it often enough that the saying has lost some meaning to most of us. Journalists are keenly aware of this. Social media has in fact become one of their primary tools. Journalists now rely on social media to get on top of a story before anyone else is even aware of it. We’ve heard the story of how the people of New York received tweets about the earthquake seconds before they felt it. In a similar vein, professional journalists are using twitter to scoop one another on current events.
“Aaron Lazenby, DJ for Pirate Cat Radio, was scanning Twitter one night last year when he noticed #iranelection trending. Curious, he clicked on the hashtag, and started poring over the flood of tweets about the “stolen” election. Lazenby became fascinated with the situation, and stayed up all night talking with people in Iran and reading up on the subject. The next day, he was hanging out with a Pulitzer Prize-winning AP reporter who was completely unaware of what was going on in Iran — news of the protests had not reached the mainstream news. Lazenby seized the opportunity to tell the story. He contacted one of his Twitter sources, who agreed to do an interview over Skype for Lazenby’s radio show. The interview, in turn, was picked up by CNN’s iReport, a citizen journalism portal.”
Social media had alerted the mainstream press to an event faster than their traditional means of finding information. It can amplify voices and events that they would not have otherwise been aware about.
However, the introduction of social media hasn’t been all roses for journalists either. Being human, they are prone to mistakes. We often see retractions in newspapers or corrections through a news broadcast. Mistakes happen. The problem is that social media can amplify those mistakes as well.
Possibly the worst example of this was the school shooting in Connecticut earlier this year. Journalists, in a rush to identify the shooter, posted the Facebook profile of one Ryan Lanza. It was a shame when it was found out to be his brother Adam Lanza. The amount of harassment Ryan received was nothing short of tragic. What must have felt like the entire world came crashing down on him in anger and rage. That journalistic error was made worse due to the very nature of social media.
So the take away is this. Social media is a fantastic research tool for journalists. You can often find out information faster than any other means available to you. The problem with it is that you need to be extremely accurate. Mistakes travel quickly and can reach just as wide an audience.