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The year we get smart about social media

“Reporters are not trained to talk about the holes in their reporting. But in a stream of constant updates, adding notes of caution can have much value.”

It’s become standard for journalists to turn to social media at times of breaking news. The raw, unfiltered stream of information can provide the first images of a dramatic event, such as the video of a bloodied suspect in the Woolwich killing this year.

ahermidaBut the past year was also marked by a backlash against the use of material on social media, fuelled by the rumours, speculation and falsehood circulating following the Boston Marathon bombings in April.

The time is now to get smarter about social media. In breaking news situations, events are in constant motion. Facts are in flux and reporting is messy. The process of sorting fact from fiction tended to happen in newsrooms, as reporters and editors assessed the veracity of the information coming in. 2014 will lay to rest any discussion of where social media fits into the news. As Boston illustrated, people want to talk about the news and share what they know or think they know. They want to be part of the news.

The marathon bombing were a stark example of how gathering, verifying, and reporting the news happens in public. The process of journalism — sourcing, filtering, contesting, and confirming information — takes place through exchanges on the network, as journalists try to be heard among the voices from law enforcement, emergency services, witnesses to the event, and those across the world reacting to the news.

The soul-searching in the media after Boston points to how journalists need to get smarter about social media in 2014. Some of the worst errors come from reporters making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. Some of the early confusion in the hunt for the bombers resulted from some news outlets talking of a suspect in custody while others talked about an arrest. In the rush to be first, mistakes will happen. The painful lesson here is to be careful to place new information in context, acknowledging the source and its reliability. Expect more media organizations to acknowledge mistakes more quickly and correct the error more openly.

Expect journalists to be more precise in their reporting, being clear about what you know but also about what they don’t know. Reporters are not trained to talk about the holes in their reporting. But in a stream of constant updates, adding notes of caution can have much value.

If there was one thing Boston told us, it is that exchanges on social media are not the equivalent of publication. It is information in flux. The conversations on Reddit were ongoing discussions where contributors collectively tried to figure out what happened and who was responsible. While some rushed to judgement, others urged caution. In 2014, expect journalists to be more careful about sourcing information from such discussion boards. Going forward, journalists are learning that rather than dismissing the chatter on social media, there is more value in engaging with it and seeking to channel the conversation unfolding online.

Alfred Hermida is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and was a founding news editor of the BBC News website.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20