The Haitian earthquake was a tragedy for humanity, but a triumph for social media-based newsgathering.
Using messages sent over Twitter by Carel Pedre, host of “Le Matinal Avec Carel” (“Mornings with Carel”), the breakfast program on Radio-One in Petion-Ville, Sky News was able to get his digital photos from Port-au-Prince on the air within minutes.
Soon after, the team at Sky News “Sunrise” morning show got Pedre for a live on-camera interview. Since the regular phone lines were down, the video and audio was patched over Skype, the Internet-based telephone service. Given the absolute lack of conventional broadcast resources functioning in the affected area, this was an impressive journalistic achievement.
Sky News’ success in using Twitter “proved that the Internet allows us to share information across the globe, regardless of the scene,” wrote Emily Purser, who was on a work experience placement with Sky News, on her blog, “NetNative.”
“There is now no excuse for not being up-to-date, all of the time,” wrote Purser. “And I’ll never hear someone scoff at Twitter again.”
The fact that wireless Web access survived in Haiti is a miracle in itself. Historically, cellular and Internet connections are usually the first to fail and/or overload in disasters, as was the case during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
This said, it was the SMS text messages, tweets and digital photos sent by the survivors — some as they were trapped inside the rubble — that truly mattered during this news event.
The crisis proved how powerful social media is for delivering news that would otherwise be missed due to logistical shortcomings (no satellite ENG teams on the ground in Haiti) or censorship (for example, anti-government protests in Iran).
Still, social media newsgathering is a double-edged sword. The immediacy that makes Twitter useful in covering breaking stories also makes it vulnerable to manipulation. This is why organizations such as Sky News and France 24 are warily enthusiastic about social media newsgathering — and careful to check the validity of whatever information they use.
Make no mistake: Sky News has embraced social media newsgathering. “Ninety of our journalists are active Twitterers,” said Sky News Online Executive Producer Julian March.
“They not only follow what’s being said on Twitter, but they use this medium to post breaking news as soon as they can, “March said. “After all, we estimate it only takes 10 seconds for a reporter to tweet a 140-character message [Twitter’s limit]. In contrast, it takes about 2 minutes to get the same message online at our Web site, during to caching layers.”
For an organization that prides itself on breaking news first — “We broke the stories of [Princess] Diana’s death and the [July 2005] London subway bombing,” March noted — Twitter is a fundamentally useful newsgathering tool. “We can break stories as soon as they happen, and use those tweets to drive people to our Web site and broadcast services,” he noted.
As for Facebook? Julian March said it is useful for getting information about people who are in the news, but lacks the speed of Twitter “and has some privacy issues attached.”
France 24 uses Twitter and Facebook to aid its newsgathering efforts, but prefers to channel citizen reporters to its “The Observers” Web site.
“We have about 2,000 ‘observers’ around the world,” said Julien Pain, the site’s editor. “Three hundred of them are what you could call ‘really active.’ When things are happening in their region, we get them to send us information, pictures and video of what is going on from the scene.”
This content is sent via Twitter, Facebook, Skype, e-mail or online chat, he added. “It all depends on the country that the person is contacting us from, and what tools they have at their disposal.”
Pain said that France 24 uses Twitter for breaking news research and Facebook to find out more about story subjects. “If you are following an aid worker for three months, Facebook is really good for that,” he said. “You get to know more about them by following Facebook, than Twitter.”
Real or Fake?
Social media reporting has one serious flaw: There is no way to know if the information being received can be accepted at face value, or if it is a hoax or an outright lie.
This vulnerability was demonstrated by Brazilian blogger Carlos Cardoso. Following the 2006 crash of Gol Airlines Flight 1907 in which no one survived, Cardoso posted two digital photos purported to have been shot by a passenger. The cabin compartment images purportedly show the tail section being ripped off, with a passenger being sucked out the opening.
The images were accepted and posted as real by many news organizations; even though Cardoso ultimately stated that they were screen captures from the television series “Lost.”
This kind of hoax is exactly what Sky News and France 24 work hard to detect. “We check tweets to verify if their locations and originators are genuine before we use them,” March said.
France 24 does the same, but goes one step further: It has a five person department dedicated to verifying all of its social media sources first, before using them either on “The Observers” or as part of the channel’s regular news content.
“Reporters are too accustomed to relying on agency news reports, where the facts have already been checked and the sources can be trusted,” said Julien Pain. “You cannot do this with social media; the opportunities for manipulation are just too numerous.”
To date, Pain said France 24 has come across numerous fakes, but added that many are not intentional. “Most of the time they come from Internet publications, which have not verified the information they provide.”
Social Media and News
The Haitian earthquake was a triumph for social media newsgathering, but it was by no means a defeat for traditional news. The reason: Social media reporting can give the public glimpses of what is happening during an event, but it cannot provide the in-depth, balanced explanations that people expect from news organizations
This is why Julien Pain views social media newsgathering as a means to cover breaking news sooner; rather than a replacement for tried-and-true reporting in general.
“Moreover, traditional news provides original content, based on what is created by the reporters who cover it,” he said. “This doesn’t happen with social media, where many outlets duplicate the same content.”
These factors, plus the risks of media manipulation, define the limits of social media newsgathering. When considered with social media’s immediacy and reach, the result is a news tool that is both powerful and dangerous; one that must be used, but with the greatest of care.