For general and investigative journalists, social media has become a significant means of obtaining news, fact-checking, and reaching out to audiences. Internet-based applications such as Facebook and Twitter count as social media, where they can be used to receive and then share content, resulting in an exchange of ideas, headlines, and discussion on what can be written.
Yet social media has by no means replaced traditional shoe-leather methods of leaving the desk and getting out into the world to obtain materials. In-person and email interviews can take place simultaneously for any given story, but we are far from seeing social media going solo in order to truly provide enough substance for articles. In examining how technology has changed and continues to affect investigative reporting, are there limitations passing under the radar that we need to pay attention to?
The evidence where social media has helped with and indeed saved the story is abundant. One example is to look at where online freedoms are sometimes greater than current social ones, such as the People's Republic of China. Reuters reported back in August about Chinese journalist Wang Keqin, who found himself in the countryside a couple years back looking into a case of rape involving local officials.
When police officers forbid him from poking around the premises, he posted his predicament online, along with a call for facts and information online. The police bureau that hindered him was soon swamped with phone calls by citizens who had read his message, using mass public pressure to warn the officers that they should not obstruct the search for truth. There are many other similar incidents throughout Asia and the world where social media has suddenly become an arena that fosters more flexibility and options for both creators and consumers of news content. It's becoming clear that journalists wishing to be versatile should not hesitate to establish an online presence and use it for their stories.
Yet the very nature of the digital space becomes something to watch out for, notably for the way edits can be made and original stories can be retracted if necessary. The tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School gun massacre on December 14th received overwhelming news coverage, and at one point there was a Twitter trail leading to an account. Television reports had broadcast one particular man as the shooter, and this name matched with that of the account.
Even high profile and celebrated journalists such as Jeff Jarvis tripped over as they retweeted and essentially passed on the statement, electronically pointing to whom some believed was the shooter. Afterwards Jarvis quickly realized his slip as a professional, including his neglect of adding conditional statements such as "the alleged" killer or "if" this man was really the shooter. Even though it was already out there on Twitter, he could have easily erased the Tweet, yet recognized his aversion to eliminating any element of the investigative trail.
Here Jarvis emphasized his commitment to professionalism and credibility, both of which are vital to journalism. He also identifies the flipside of being able to modify your digital content: no one short of being present before the erasure will ever know what the original words or photos or files were.
Some services such as Facebook have recently begun to actually note on specific comments that they have been altered in some way after publication. Other bloggers and authors of online articles post either updated paragraphs in a coda section, or use strikethrough formatting to indicate original content. All these suggest major concern and attention to informal online etiquette - one that extends beyond investigative journalism - that involves showing viewers what came before you had time to hit 'Backspace.' But for Twitter, where content can move faster than Facebook through hashtags and limited character messages, cannot do this without a string of follow-up Tweets pointing to the previous mistake, inaccuracy, or insensitive comment.
This captures one of the few potential pitfalls that inherently exist in social media. There are others, such as fears that by broadcasting certain questions or desiring specific facts, journalists risk potential online backlash or even story theft. Though reporters can choose to be more meticulous with their security and limit these expressions to people they know, oftentimes a confirmation comes from a complete stranger not hitherto part of your network.
In signaling to the online community your desire for particular information, sometimes it is difficult to ensure confidentiality of the response and what to do with sensitive information. There is enough evidence out there - from Petraeus to Google's Eric Schmidt proclaiming that 'privacy is dead' - showing that everyone can leave a digital trail, even behind username and password. Finally, there is the issue of accountability: it is very easy to willingly or inadvertently fabricate information behind the cover of TwitterUser47, with little to be held against you in real life.
But social media has greatly affected the way American consumers get their news. In September, Pew Research Center reported that those in the general public getting their news digitally doubled the number since 2010. The study also showed that more Americans are downloading news apps in the past couple of years: forty-five percent of mobile Internet users in 2012, which is up from twenty percent two years earlier. This changed landscape ultimately means that investigative journalists, in knowing where more content is now consumed and shared, will be missing out on more if they are not adept and familiar with the same digital setting. In addition, social media is extremely useful in solidifying facts and building credibility, which is a major keystone of effective and meaningful reporting.
This contributes to facilitating the conversation that viewers can have about a particular story, ensuring that the investigation and engagement does not end after the article is written and published. The Wall Street Journal created a Twitter account to follow-up with and respond to users in the online community, whether it be pointing to additional sources for further reading, or simply clarifying technical issues regarding electronic subscriptions. These highlight how social media is a toolkit not just for writing the story, but also ensuring the quality of its delivery and reception.
All in all, many professionals and commentators agree that social media is but another member of the investigative toolkit. Just like other forms of technology, the tool is going to transform the craft and practice of the user. Yet despite its significant impact on the trade - creation, analysis, and consumption of news content - it will be insufficient to singlehandedly provide all the facts and figures.
Just how throwing technological equipment and infrastructure in any community without suitable user know-how is fruitless, arming a journalist with social media access and omitting the right training is not going to produce better results. As Jarvis recently illustrated, all of his professional experience as an investigative journalist had briefly disappeared for a moment, and his actions on Twitter did enough to make him reevaluate. A less competent individual might have carried on, thereby falling into the familiar trap of using technology to exacerbate a situation. Investigative journalism and social media have increasingly become inextricable, but it is still important to ensure the tools are used in a meaningful way.
Jonathan Lin is a Bookworm, Music Junkie, Cineaste, Tech Enthusiast, Gadget Guru, Blogger, Musician, Jogger, Dreamer, and in the Carleton College class of '13.
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