Social media and other technological advances are changing journalism dramatically and helping journalists tell deeper, more complex stories in ways that were not possible in the past, two veteran broadcasters for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation say.
“The way that people communicate and receive news, as journalists and audience members, has changed quite a bit in our lifetime, and in such a short period of time, leading to great new opportunities to gather information”, said Lisa Khoo, who has worked in journalism for more than 20 years. She is currently a Senior Producer for CBC Radio One’s World Report, the top-rated news program in Canada.
John Northcott, Breaking News Reporter for CBC News Network and a 30-year veteran, said social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook “allow journalists to reach out to the audience directly for feedback and information which changes the story, adding depth and context and development that wasn’t possible 10 years ago”.
Khoo and Northcott spoke at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC) at The University of Hong Kong on February 20. The two said that social media provides journalists with an indication of what the pubic thinks the real story is, and the details journalists receive from their audiences enable them to find and report stories more completely.
As an example, Khoo cited the enormous role social media has played in reporting on the Arab Spring uprisings that have swept the Middle East and North Africa since 2010.
With state censorship in these countries and foreign journalists often operating under restrictions, social media was often the only way for uncensored information to be obtained, Khoo said.
“At first media organizations [in the West] were hesitant to air what was being said on Facebook and the videos that were appearing on YouTube”, she said. “But they quickly became more accepting of these reports because they were coming from places where there were no journalists or where journalists couldn’t be, and they found ways to verify them”.
Northcott and Khoo said there are also pitfalls and ethical issues to be considered when using new technology.
In 2011, U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford was shot in the head at a community event in Tuscon, Arizona. During the confusion that followed, someone at the event told National Public Radio that Giffords was dead because it did not seem like she could have survived such an attack. In fact, she was alive, but NPR tweeted that Giffords had been killed. Even though NPR retracted the information shortly afterwards, news organizations around the world had meanwhile picked the story up.
“And she wasn’t dead”, Khoo said. “But it shows how fast news can move around on the internet. And when a mistake is made, how impossible it is to pull it back”.
Khoo and Northcott said it is important for journalists to slow down and closely examine the information they are getting from social media before publishing it. This point was echoed by Kevin Drew, an assistant professor at the JMSC and former editor at the International Herald Tribune. “Social media is another tool, another fishing line journalists use to find a story”, Drew said. “But it should still be treated as a source and, like all sources, it needs to be verified”.
While the Internet has caused changes that are threatening the existence of some traditional media, Northcott said developments in technology were actually making it an exciting time to be in the journalism business.
“The initial concerns that it was all going to end with the Internet is not coming to pass”, he said. “If journalism is done right, and with professional experience and verification, there has never been a better time to be able to dig for information and find interesting stories to tell to an audience that’s bigger and easier to reach than it’s ever been”.