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As shots rang out around the Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon last week, students ran for their lives. Some, a tiny minority, pulled out their phones to tweet about what was happening.
Within minutes reporters from around the world were filling their replies with requests for contact — some asking if the witnesses were safe, others urging them to find shelter, more charging straight in without an introduction, but all looking to contact the person for the story.
The same happened in July when gunmen opened fire on a tourist beach in Tunisia. Reporters all over the world are probably doing it now.
There will almost always be someone with a smartphone and a social media account at the scene of a news event before a journalist even hears of it, and this has fundamentally changed the reporting process. This is one of the reasons First Draft was established.
The public reaction to social newsgathering has not been positive, however. Some Twitter users responded to journalists’ requests for contact around the UCC shooting by calling it “sickening”, “terrible”, “sleazy”, “disgusting”; the reporters are “vultures” or “ghouls”, “slobbering” or “blood lusting” after a story.
But the practice will — must — continue if journalists are to do their jobs properly and gather the information which many of the name-callers will end up reading. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, though.
Yesterday, First Draft coalition members and other journalists discussed some of the issues, and possible solutions, around the ethics of social newsgathering in a Twitter chat on the hashtag #FDethics.
These arguments are valid in that journalists provide a vital public service in getting the facts and telling the story, but they miss the all too important point that any nuance or empathy in speaking to someone face to face is sacrificed for functionality on social media. Door knocking and personal interviews allow reporters to build a rapport with an eyewitness — be it with a kind word or a hand on the shoulder — that is just not possible in 140 characters.
And herein lies the problem. News organisations need two things from a breaking news situation: quotes and images. Each require a different approach, but the standard methods are still far from perfect.
This last point was particularly relevant during last week’s shooting. One of the first witnesses to tweet from the horror of the scene was immediately bombarded with tweets from reporters, in some cases by three or four from the same organisation.
Focus groups in research from EyeWitness Media Hub have been able to pick out the news organisations “hounding” eyewitnesses for pics and quotes a good time after the event. The impression left is rarely positive.
So it seems clear that better co-ordination within newsrooms and between news organisations could hold the key to getting the material needed to relay the story without alienating witnesses and the wider public. One is much easier than the other, however.
As David Clinch went on to point out, if news organisations already work together on issues of safety in the field, what’s to stop them working together in contacting eyewitnesses and protecting them as well?
The minefield of rights, responsibilities and management of a UGC pooling system aside, one topic that has been left out of the debate so far is that of the platforms themselves.
After all, they have ultimate control over what happens on Twitter, Instagram or wherever witnesses may be telling the world about what they are seeing. Opinion here is split, though. A social media platform’s bottom line is its user base, and they are unlikely to put up barriers and forms for sharing content if it means people will share less.
But this area takes on a new dimension when considering the importance of news to the stream of information being shared on those platforms, and whether journalists going after witnesses like wasps swarming a picnic could drive users away.
News organisations could even take it upon themselves to put a technological solution in place to combine a number of these concerns and solutions.
A solution was never going to be reached over an hour of tweets, but regularly assessing the issues and looking at them from every angle is the only way to define the problem and move the conversation forward.
No doubt this conversation will continue and a panacea to the tangled mess of interests, concerns and responsibilities is still some way off.
For local news outlets though, whose community can be both the source and audience for stories, greater engagement on a day-to-day basis could break down the walls.
Until a wider consensus is reached and answers, if any, are agreed upon, news organisations, journalists and social networks have a lot to think about if they are going to stop angering and alienating their audience.
Alastair Reid is managing editor of First Draft News
Catch up on all the tweets and points in the Twitter chat on the hashtag #FDethics
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