46th Carlos Kelly McClatchy Memorial Symposium

#Hashtagged: How Social Media are Revolutionizing the News

Social media is not going to crowd out traditional journalism or destroy its rules for accuracy and fairness. But it represents both a challenge and an opportunity for media companies and trained journalists seemingly drowned out by its megaphone effect.

Veterans of digital news from Silicon Valley, the Bay Area and public media explored the relationship between social media and news reporting at a symposium Thursday at Stanford University, “#Hashtagged: How Social Media are Revolutionizing the News.”

The nearly half-century-running Carlos K. McClatchy Symposium and Lecture series is sponsored by Stanford’s Department of Communication. It honors the aggressive, independent editor and executive with McClatchy Newspapers who was always willing to challenge entrenched viewpoints.

Participants in the discussion, moderated by Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford, were:

  • Krishna Bharat, distinguished scientist and founder of Google News;
  • Andy Carvin, senior strategist at National Public Radio’s Social Media Desk and former director of the Digital Divide Network, which provides information relating to inequitable access;
  • Susan Mernit, co-founder, editor and publisher of Oakland Local (oaklandlocal.com), a community news and training non-profit that focuses on social justice issues, and a former vice president at AOL and Netscape, and a former Yahoo! senior director;
  • Will Tacy, executive editor, Yahoo! News and former editor at Newsweek.com and managing editor at New York Times Digital.

The event was recorded for rebroadcast on Stanford iTunes and C-Span.

Audience reaction to the news has always been a component of traditional media, particularly newspapers – letters to the editor, for example. But social media has blown open the editorial office doors, demanding a conversation not just a response, symposium participants agreed. It’s an ongoing conversation, one that has given voice to perspectives and experience often absent from mainstream media, due to neglect or, increasingly, understaffing.

“A lot of people think of social media as a story online with a comment thread – not that different from letters to the editor. But social media has allowed feedback through the whole process,” said Andy Carvin, who built a huge Twitter audience during the Arab Spring.

Social media helps lower the bar on who can participate in news propagation, said Krishna Bharat. In 2011, his company launched Google +, expanding the impact of Google News, which aims to increase the diversity of news consumption by aggregating reports from different publishers.

“If you asked someone a few years ago what is journalism, they’d say you pick up a paper and read it. Now there’s a conversation. It’s a completely different model,” he said.

“You used to have a publisher and a consumer. Now you have curators and a conversation where all the actors are contributing and reacting,” he said. “Everyone is adding to the conversation – here’s what you should know, here are other connections.”

Social media, has in fact, fundamentally changed the relationship between media and its consumers and dramatically impacted the work of editors and writers. Editors are also now curators of the massive amounts of eyewitness reports and social media coverage now available.

The voice of authority is constantly shifting, said Susan Mernit. For example, people no longer look to the newspaper’s movie critic or restaurant critic, but to bloggers who gain expertise and a following.

Mernit’s Oakland Local landed right in the social media maelstrom with coverage of the controversial 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant, a passenger at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station by BART police. Dozens of bystanders captured the shooting on video on their cell phones, refuting police accounts of the event. Mernit said her online publication never relies solely on the crowd for reporting events, however. “We’re very scrupulous about not taking social media reports as fact.”

“We maintain small mobile newsrooms. People file stories, upload content and combine that with information from the crowd. It’s given our coverage a depth and diversity that other coverage hasn’t been able get.”

Still, the use of social media in news reporting can pose interesting dilemmas. For example, a young man in Oakland is live streaming every Occupy event, she said. But he is also a protester. “It was fascinating to see. We couldn’t take it as fact. Yet he was the dominant reporter” there, she said.

Carvin, who has been using Twitter for five years now, looks at social media as an asset, a way of capturing on-the-street accounts while trained journalists focus on more challenging reporting needs.

Will Tacy said that traditional media should look at social media as purely another newsroom tool, “to show us what we need to pay attention to, what has gone from zero to 60 in the last 30 minutes.”

But it’s a tool that the media can’t afford to ignore, added Carvin.

Carvin was among the first journalists to notice the spark of the Arab Spring. Having developed a large Twitter community in the Middle East, he noticed a new hashtag increasingly popping up. It was the name of a small town in Tunisia where a man had set himself on fire in frustration over government oppression. The fruit vendor’s fiery protest was recorded on cell phones and posted on YouTube. Bloggers then began curating what they were finding and cross-posting on Facebook and Vimeo. Tunisian authorities were unable to stop this communication tsunami.

“It got to the point where my Twitter followers became my newsroom,” he said. Instead of a full staff of producers and broadcast equipment, “I was sitting on park bench with my phone having dozens of Twitter followers doing the work. I could essentially anchor the coverage.”

The vetting he did, he said, was rather “old-school.”

“If only one source was saying something happened, it’s not enough. But if 10 people are all saying independently they’re being shot at, it’s something.”

Journalist using social media in reporting have to relinquish some power, he said. Anyone can be trained to take highlights from different feeds, he said, but the experienced journalist can be a master of ceremonies who knows his subject, taps into community experts and can provide a more nuanced report.

Google’s Krishna agreed that curation is not going to replace the need for solid journalistic reporting and investigation. “Sometimes you need to put in weeks of work. So social media’s not going to eliminate that.”

But he said that traditional media is realizing that in order to thrive, it needs to become a trusted guide through all the social media.

The successful ones will focus on “building something with unique value that causes people to prefer them over other options. And that will take innovation.”