Social Media as a Primary Source

Protesters in Tehran, the capital of Iran — June 16, 2009

The internet and social media is often believed to be a place of equal access where everyone can have a voice and be heard, if this is true then we can assume the voices expressed using the internet and social media wouldn’t be overlooked for more ‘traditional’ avenues of information.

A recent study by Megan Knight of the University of Lancashire explores the use of social media as a primary source for journalists specifically during the events of the Iranian election of 2009. Protests took place after the surprising re-election of then current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with 62% of the vote. Due to the irregular results of the election millions of Iranian citizens stormed the streets of major cities to call for their president’s resignation in the face of a supposedly rigged election. In the last post we explored the use of social media and the internet as a platform of news gathering and distribution during the events of the Egyptian Revolution. But what is the use of social media as a primary source for journalists?

Knight’s study sought evidence to prove the use of social media along with traditional sources such as political statements and field experts during the Iranian election which was often called the “Twitter Revolution.” Megan Knight concluded in her studies that although there was a perceived importance of social media expressed by numerous articles about the election, the actual use of social media as a primary source was lacking. She found that journalists often, if not only, used traditional sources such as: political statements, politicians, and various expert opinions over statements made by the general Iranian public on Facebook or Twitter.

According to Knight’s study, out of 365 articles selected about the Iranian election and the protests that took place immediately after, the UK’s Guardian wrote 40% of them with the rest being almost evenly divided between The Telegraph, Times, and The Independent. Coverage was lowest before and shortly after the election, and was highest in the days following during the protests, more evident to the fact that the global media only took interest when there was conflict. The study categorized each article into seven groups: hard news, analysis, backgrounder, color comment, leader, profile, and vox populi (or man on the street.) Hard news took up almost half of the articles, while analysis was a close second.

As stated before coverage favored traditional sources over new media sources, where the majority of articles took their information from government institutions from the Iranian government and foreign government responses to the ongoing conflict in Iran. Only a small minority of sources were taken from social media. Politicians made up most of the quoted material although there was an unusual large amount of “public opinion” sources and unknown sources quoted for a political news story. Furthermore, the channels used to gather the information was studied as well with the most common of the identified sources as being ‘personal communication’ (conversations, phone calls, and emails) and following that were official statements and other news organizations. After the events had died down in Iran it was found by Knight that in accumulation only thirty stories incorporated social media.

So we ask ourselves, what should we take away from all this information? Even as the overall use of traditional sources outnumbering new media sources was expected, should we change how we gather information?

As a person that grew up in the age of the internet I see a clear problem with the choice of available material and sources that journalists use. Of course institutions, governments, politicians, and experts should be cited often, but when it comes to an event that is a protest and calls upon the mass cooperation of the general public then it is unusual that normal people are the least represented in news media.

As a platform of easy access and unlimited voices and opinions, the internet and social media should be seen as a gold mine of information for journalists. As we saw during the Egyptian Revolution of the Arab Spring, social media was the main foundation in which protesters assembled, the communication and connection made by the Egyptian people through the internet led to the strongest response in which the demands of the public were met and a corrupt political leader was overthrown.

Journalists must adapt to a new environment of acquirable information. If journalists remain to overlook the potential of social media as a source and as a tool then they will be closing themselves off from the very people they are trying to inform.

Cited Sources

Knight, Megan. “Journalism as Usual: The Use of Social Media as a Newsgathering Tool in the Coverage of the Iranian Elections in 2009.” Journal of Media Practice 13.1 (2012): 1–74. University of Central Lancashire. Web.