When social media users and mobile devices already outnumber the global population, there will almost always be someone with a smartphone at a news event before a journalist even hears of it. But — the Internet being the Internet, and people being people — the huge amount of false information shared online represents a unique problem to news organizations.
When a story breaks, how can journalists reach eyewitnesses at the scene? How can they verify claims, pictures, and videos by the hundred? How should they approach people who are, in that moment, scared for their lives? How do they find an original uploader and avoid getting stung for copyright infringement? How should they combat the spread of false information? And how on earth can they do all this and still remain competitive?
Many of these questions traditionally fall on the shoulders of a social media editor, tasked with steering their outlet’s digital ship through a swelling, screaming sea of networks and communities. Various maps and compasses for the task are emerging, yet without more trained hands on deck, the going is rough.
After nearly every major news event over 2015 involved some form of eyewitness media, 2016 looks to be the year when news organizations begin devoting as much time and resources to the newsgathering side of social media as they do the output. There are many organizations and journalists already excelling in news on the social web, of course, but the novelty of the problem has left the wider industry playing catch up, and the costs are beginning to show.
The backlash from hundreds of Twitter users to the media scrum which surrounded one witness of the UCC shooting in October made the problem clear. “Scum,” “vultures,” “ghouls,” “sleazy,” and “disgusting” were some of the more printable epithets thrown at reporters who were just doing their job. All of the users involved in that conversation have the potential to be sources in the future, and many will remember all too clearly what happens to people who report events on social. The original eyewitness never responded.
News organizations are regularly caught out by fakes and hoaxes, or publish repurposed material as news, and when they get called out — which they invariably are — more readers and viewers are lost to the sea.
In the last few months alone, a hoaxer named “Marie Christmas” was quoted as a witness to the San Bernardino shooting; images from January’s Charlie Hebdo shooting were shared during the more recent Paris attacks; 4chan fooled broadcasters into misidentifying the suspected UCC shooter; and an old image of a burning jet was published as evidence of the Russian plane shot down over Turkey. There are many more. Readers and viewers have access to the same information as news organizations in these scenarios and when the newsgathering side of social media is under-resourced, the output side built on engagement and community is undermined.
With the rise in private networks like WhatsApp, which has nearly a billion users, eyewitness media will be increasingly shared privately as a story breaks. Eyewitnesses are becoming savvy to the value of newsworthy material and this will make it harder to find, verify and use. The “you ain’t no Muslim bruv” video of London’s Leytonstone stabbing which spawned a hashtag only broke the surface of public consciousness after circulating on WhatsApp and the copyright holder has yet to be identified.
The BBC, Storyful, Reportedly, BuzzFeed and many more are already garnering excellent stories from investing in communities on these networks, using old-school reporting techniques based on trust, respect and rapport.
These fundamentals of journalism haven’t changed. Every news organization is full of reporters and editors breaking important stories providing a valuable public service. But, as is so often the case, the technology has outpaced our ability to react to it. If the issue of eyewitness media — its discovery and verification — is not addressed, relationships between news organizations, audiences, and journalists will only suffer.