The role of social media in journalism

Screenshot of Facebook page created by the Tallahassee Democrat during their investigation of the Rachel Hoffman case.
Photo courtesy of Nieman Reports

Screenshot of Facebook page created by the Tallahassee Democrat during their investigation of the Rachel Hoffman case.

The people won, thanks to the power of social media.

On November 1, Bank of America tweeted, “In response to customer feedback, we will no longer implement a debit usage fee,” and provided a link to the official statement, which more or less said something like, “Fine, we lose; you win.”

Of course, I was one of many unhappy B of A customers who were outraged at the idea of paying monthly fees to use my debit card. After all, the bank pushed people to rely on their plastic only a few years ago, and the convenience of carrying one card, as opposed to singles and fives, quickly grew on many people.

While my Twitter timeline burst with complaints, I didn’t think whatever people said on social media would actually make a difference. But here we are, laughing at B of A for even trying to impose such a ridiculous fee.

So what does this say about social media?

If millions of people use Twitter and Facebook to vent, then even giant corporations will have to reconsider and reevaluate their decisions.

No one can plausibly say we can ignore what people are saying on the web. People care, and people love to voice their opinions. Especially when they can hide behind anonymity, true feelings surface very quickly.

Just to give an example, I am honestly surprised at how many people referred to and even attempted to skew the results of the Roundabout straw poll posted on The Times website last week.

As soon as the poll went live and the links were sent out via Facebook and Twitter, the Facebook post attracted more than 10 comments within minutes, and at the beginning, people cast their votes according to how they felt about the issue. Then some passionate minds discovered ways to vote multiple times and affected the results quite drastically.

Interactions like this illustrate how many people spend time on social media and care about important issues, and for journalists, who value man-on-street reactions, social media serves as a helpful tool.

So, as social media becomes more powerful each day, the role it plays in the world of journalism also transforms over time.

Nieman Reports of Harvard University wrote about a Tallahassee newspaper that relied on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to get an extra push for its investigative reporting.

When a recent college graduate — who agreed to aid a police investigation by going undercover — died in a drug deal gone bad, the Tallahassee police didn’t disclose all parts of the investigation.

Subsequently, the newspaper turned to popular social networking sites to get details on the victim’s whereabouts the night before the drug deal blew up and to learn something about her personality and character. This attracted quite a bit of attention on the web.

So, social networking sites certainly help to get the word out. They also help reporters gather information. After all, whatever users post on Facebook and Twitter belongs in the public domain. Anyone can see it, and anyone can use the content.

Browsing the social networking sites can help reporters get a good feel of where the majority views lie and what opposition factions believe.

Amy Gahran of Knight Digital Media Center discussed this relationship between social media and journalism in “Social media is not an enemy of journalism, Pew report indicates.”

The Pew report she refers to found that nearly 80 percent of American adults use the Internet, and 60 percent of those users use at least one social networking service, including Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace.

“The average age of adult social networking users is 38,” the study reported. “So clearly, social media is now a mainstream communication and media channel for a substantial part of the core audience for most U.S. news organizations.”

But, the difficulty arises when journalists must weed out embellishments, exaggerations, and flat-out false statements.

Reuters Social Media Editor Anthony De Rosa does just that every day. He follows popular topics on TweetDeck, to pinpoint a story angle, to verify information, and to find sources.

His position didn’t exist a couple years ago. Titles like “social media editor” came along only when tweets and Facebook updates began to matter.

On the one hand, thanks to social networking sites, information gathering became much easier. On the other, mistakes can quickly disseminate, too.

When Arizona Sen. Gabby Giffords was shot, NPR accidentally killed her off via Twitter, and subsequent re-tweets spread the wrong information — that she had died on the scene — to users worldwide.

But in the end, I have to side with those who say social media has helped journalism and made reporters’ lives easier. It’s easier to find interesting local stories and events. It even reminds me to look at certain story ideas that I may have forgotten about.

A bit more on e-readers

Here’s a quick addition to last week’s column on e-readers. Amazon has announced that Disney and ABC will now allow Kindle downloads of their shows to the brand-new Kindle Fire, a touchscreen all-color e-reader.

The arrival of television shows on mobile devices gives us something to do on airplanes or buses, and most importantly, freedom from our cable boxes. Thus, the expansion of TV content on e-readers could mean the end of rushing home to catch primetime TV or relying on your TiVo to catch your favorite shows.

Yoojin Cho is web coordinator at The Martha’s Vineyard Times. Follow her and The Times on Twitter, @theMVTimes and @Yooj812, and “Like” us on Facebook.