Social Media Claims a Place in News Reporting

A photo of singer Mariah Carey on a beach begins to trend on social media. Is this news because someone tweeted it? Or does it become news only after a journalist reports on it?

“I’m not sure anyone in the world actually knows the answer to this question definitively,” said Eric Gilbert, assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing. “There are just so many things going on. There are reporters that source from Twitter. There are reporters that think journalism is much higher brow than whatever Twitter is going to pay attention to. It’s a little messy at the moment.”

Messy indeed. As the definition of news evolves, celebrity news trending on social media now sits next to a story on the latest presidential debate.  

“It’s funny to watch,” said Amy Bruckman, professor and associate school chair in the School of Interactive Computing. “The fact that someone’s video went viral is somehow news? That’s crazy. It’s fascinating.”

Bruckman went on to add that if a large number of people are interested in a particular topic, then that topic is relevant.

“What’s trending is one way to gain some insight into what people are interested in and what is resonating with people culturally. It’s an empirical measure of what people are interested in,” she said.

Trending topics also give journalists a new source of data regarding what people are following.

“Journalists can both follow that as a lead, and also reverse it and say, ‘I think people should be more interested in this topic, and I’m going to try and get some traction for it.’ It’s not one or the other. They can do both,” Bruckman said.

Social media also is changing the way journalists cover stories.

“Journalists are finding out information perhaps a bit later than the public,” said Irfan Essa, professor in the School of Interactive Computing, associate dean in the College of Computing, and adjunct professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “For example, if there’s a fire in the neighborhood, sometimes, before the emergency services department finds out, the local neighborhood folks are putting pictures on Twitter. It’s to the extent that now, not just news reporters but even emergency services are learning that instead of waiting for a 9-1-1 call, they need to start looking at social media for emergency needs.”

News or information — especially breaking news — is being shared more often through social media instead of through authoritative sources, Essa said. He noted that several of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have been live blogged and/or tweeted even as the news media was waiting for the decision.

“Everyone is trying to be first to get out there,” Essa said. “The news organizations have realized — or have not realized — that they are not always first, and they’re struggling to be first. Reporters cannot be everywhere, but citizens are everywhere.”

Essa also said that part of this conversation is that anyone who takes a picture and reports it is a citizen journalist. In essence, they are eyewitnesses with more direct access to a larger viewership. He refers to them as eyewitnesses because they are recording or photographing events as they see them, without contextualizing the events. They are not adding a layer of what’s relevant to it.

“I believe they are serving a much bigger need by giving us eyes where there are none,” Essa said. “This has created a beast with a billion eyes. We can see things everywhere.”

Significant Changes in Journalism

The term ‘computational journalism’ was created at Georgia Tech in 2008. It explores how computation technology has changed how news is gathered, verified, and distributed. Now, some journalism schools offer courses in computational journalism, and they are hiring people with computer science backgrounds to help with this.

“How we get information and how we make decisions has changed,” Essa said. “Consumers are much closer to the news. They are really quick to comment, up-vote, or down-vote things. If they really like something, they will share it with others. The most emailed news items are the biggest currency that news media have. Social media has created a virtual version of the water cooler.”

This brings us back to the original question: in the era of social media, what is news?

“News was being aware of the environment around me,” Essa said. “What remains is my interest in knowing what’s happening around me.”

He said there is a general belief that the younger generation follows social media more than traditional media, and they don’t want to know what is happening in the world.

“From the little evidence I have, that is not entirely true,” Essa noted. “They are just using different sources to get the information they’re interested in. With the election happening, if you go to the younger generation, their awareness is pretty good.” He said that as the father of two teenage boys, he’s always impressed when they know exactly what’s happening around them, and their source is Reddit as opposed to more traditional media like The New York Times.

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