The thousands of people who crowded around the New Hampshire State House one day in late April 2011 were there for a single reason: to protest planned budget cuts and proposed changes to collective bargaining laws. And they used every available tool to convey their discontent.
Standing on the plaza, they waved signs, chanted, passed out fliers and shared their fears about how the cuts might change their lives. For weeks, their outrage had percolated online, and it continued that day as rally-goers used their smartphones to publish photos, opinions and videos from the rally on Facebook and Twitter.
To cover the story fully, journalists in the newsroom at the Concord Monitor would need to follow the protestors both to the State House lawn and into the social networks they used. A small team of reporters went downtown to cover the crowd and the business of the legislature. As the web content editor, it was my job to document the digital side of the rally.
As the crowds grew and the day unfolded, I found myself in a place familiar to many modern journalists, struggling to strike a balance between new techniques and old standards. My tool of choice that day was Storify, one of several web applications that allow users to cover events in real time using tweets, Facebook updates, photos and videos published by the people involved. At their best, these apps produce results that are intense, emotional choruses of images, quotes and sounds. However, they also create dozens of potential pitfalls.
Social media isn’t a new reporting tool in our newsroom. In the past, we’ve used MySpace to track down the friends of a murder victim, quoted the tweets of public officials in our political column and described Facebook tribute pages created for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this was a different kind of social media journalism, one that involved created something new from raw information. Practicing it made me part of an emerging class of journalists who call themselves not reporters or editors, but curators.
Some of the most experienced members of this new category are the staff members at Storyful, an organization that uses social media streams to document news around the world. Some of their recent work includes extensive coverage of this Spring’s protests in the Middle East and daily news digests told through links, tweets and YouTube videos. Irish journalist Markham Nolan, who has been working there for about a year, defines a curator as follows:
“We're selecting the most relevant, most accurate and factual bits and assembling a contextual narrative with them,” he said via email. “No one tweet or YouTube video can describe a situation, but by plucking the best items from the deluge of content that we are faced with, by including a variety of perspectives and adding intelligent context, you can give the reader a holistic sense of a news story. “
I’ve been dabbling in social media curation since late 2010, producing a couple of short pieces for the Monitor about the midterm elections and the colossal snow storm that swept the East Coast just after Christmas. But the rally was the first time I used the technique to cover breaking news. Sitting there in the newsroom, miles away from the State House plaza, I felt a little voyeuristic about grabbing photos, observations and opinions from the Twitter streams and Facebook pages of rally-goers. But I soon realized that these were open accounts belonging to users who wanted to publicize the rally. It was no different than standing in the crowd with a notebook, jotting down what I saw.
The experience was overwhelming. Tweets, posts, photos and videos piled up by the dozen. Few of the rally-goers used their real names. It was difficult to tell who was actually at the State House and who was relaying information second or third hand. In News Values: Ideas for an Information Age, Jack Fuller defines news as “a provisional truth, the best that can be said quickly.” Social media curation is, in many ways, the most provisional truth.
As I worked, I developed some guidelines:
- Find trusted sources. It wasn’t long before I stumbled across Twitter and Facebook feeds belonging to people I’d interviewed over the years. Their ranks included lobbyists, lawmakers and state employees, many of who were connected to me on various social networks. I knew who they were and what stake they had in the game. I could provide that context to readers quickly.
- Observations gathered by non-journalists are okay. Direct quotes are not. Several public figures spoke at the rally and dozens of people relayed versions of what they said. The gist of each of the reports was probably correct, I couldn’t count on an average rally-goer to put the same sanctity on direct quotations as a professional journalist. Instead, I relied on our reporters in the field to relay quotes, and used social media to gather the crowd’s reaction.
- Be careful with content that insults or bashes someone or something. I had no reservations about using items from people frustrated about policy decisions, but I passed on anything that included flat out name-calling. It didn’t advance the story and it was unrealistic to get a thoughtful response from the target of jeers on such a short deadline.
- Verify everything. I sent a text message to a reporter at the State House to confirm the size of the crowd and used our records to check the proper names of organizations. I also employed many of the techniques in Craig Kanalley’s How to Verify a Tweet, a post on the Twitter Journalism blog. Steps include checking the timestamp, seeing how long a person has used a social media account and, when necessary, sending the user a direct message.
- Understand the tool’s limitations. My curated piece was part of a much bigger news package, one that dominated our print and online editions for several days. It was not the appropriate venue to explain the nuances of government budgeting or to fact check the claims of various lobbies. Those jobs fell to our team of State House reporters, who filed dozens of blog posts and articles that week. It was my role to capture the mood and observations of the average person who assembled that day.
None of these guidelines are particularly groundbreaking. In fact, they’re all natural extensions of regular, real-time journalism. In a recently-published guide to social media practices, the American Society of Newspaper Editors explains “there’s no reason that traditional ethics guidelines should go out the window.”
One of the editors quoted in the paper, John Robinson of The Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record puts it as follows:
“Don’t be stupid.”
Nolan’s work with Storyful includes plenty of old-fashioned techniques. He’s careful to include context and background, to seek the person closest to the story and to be transparent about the origin of the information. He also uses social media to engage – and vet – potential sources.
“All the attributes that make a good journalist make a good curator,” said Nolan. “We're constantly asking ourselves to check our sources, re-verify them as the circumstances change, and constantly re-evaluate content in light of new developments.“
To my knowledge, everything I published on the day of the rally was an accurate reflection of reality, but that isn’t always the case, as internet provides a host of powerful tools for anyone trying to cook up a hoax. There have been a few recent high profile examples. A blog called “A gay girl in Damascus,” which included detailed reports of the Arab Spring uprisings was, in fact, written by a guy from Georgia, not a half-Syrian, half-American lesbian. The truth was revealed only after the American government launched an investigation into the girl’s purported disappearance. In another case, hackers used a Fox News Twitter account to spread false – and graphic – reports of President Obama’s death.
But these risks, Nolan reminds us, aren’t necessarily a function of technology.
“Rumors and falsehood are older than news itself,” he said. “We're human, we're not infallible, and we're not sitting on a supercomputer with an infallible algorithm. We'll get it wrong from time to time. And the fear that it will happen tomorrow keeps us on our toes today.”
That fear is nothing new. I’m not the only reporter who keeps a tally of the corrections she’s had to file in her career. The number isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to make me always ask another question, always find another source. But journalists should not let this fear prevent them from experimenting with new storytelling tools. Instead, they should wade into social networks -- and what ever comes next – armed with ethics, personal experiences and the knowledge that, as always, the job of a journalist is to seek and report the truth.
Meg Heckman is the online editor for the Concord (NH) Monitor, where she has also worked as a reporter covering politics, government and issues related to aging and elder care. She is an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire and the co-author of We Went to War: New Hampshire Remembers. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @meg_heckman. To see more of her work, log on to megheckman.com.