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How Reporters Are Using Their Newsfeeds to Break Big Stories | News in a New Age — Part 2

In part 1 of our journalist series, we explored how 15-year-old Gabe Fleisher is using the newsletter format to deliver objective political reporting directly to his niche audience. Now, we’ll dive deeper into how social media is impacting journalists’ workflow.

Journalists worry about being scooped. Not all, but most. Scoops, or exclusive pieces of news reported by a single journalist or publication, first surfaced in the late 1870s. To prevent getting scooped on a major story, a journalist has to stay connected around the clock — an exercise that involves sheer determination, relationships, savviness, and some luck. Journalists depended on anonymous tips, and as technology developed, they leaned on police scanners. But in the digital era, news circulates at record speeds. Being scooped seems inevitable — unless you use social media to your scooping advantage.

That’s exactly what Aaron Lazenby did. Back in 2009, the Pirate Cat Radio host noticed the hashtag #iranelection trending on Twitter. After scrolling through a seemingly endless number of tweets, he discovered that many Iranian citizens felt the election had been unfairly won by sitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The election results sparked massive protests in the country.

Initially, the story intrigued Lazenby on a personal level. But after spending time with a Pulitzer Prize winning AP reporter who knew nothing about the Iran election, he realized he had a lead on a big story. He decided to break it himself. He interviewed one of his Twitter contacts via Skype for an episode of Pirate Cat Radio. CNN’s iReport portal picked up the interview as part of its reporting on the election. And, this report also led to several additional Pirate Cat Radio stories about the Iranian government.

USC Annenberg Assistant Professor Robert Hernandez took a similar approach in 2011. He searched through YouTube videos to find footage of protests in Bahrain, during the historic uprising that lasted until 2013. He discovered some amateur footage that had just been uploaded and had 0 views. Though the clip was filmed with poor quality, it contained a bombshell. A protestor was shot and killed in the video. It was raw, disturbing footage that Hernandez could access without a news crew or the backing of a major organization. He used the footage to break the story under the hashtag #wjchat, a weekly web journalism discussion he co-founded in 2010. That story led to a greater discussion about journalists’ access to footage and resources in the digital age.

Increasingly, modern journalists like Lazenby and Hernandez are using new means to enhance their brands of citizen journalism. A 2012 study conducted by PR firm Oriella revealed that 62% of North American journalists pulled trusted sources from Twitter and Facebook. 64% found sources on trusted blogs. Social media savviness is an important tool in the connected journalist’s arsenal. Reporters can connect directly with witnesses and sources, even if they are across the country or halfway around the world..

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However, sourcing and finding leads aren’t the only parts of the journalistic process happening on social media. Users are pitching stories to journalists, freelance writers are pitching to editors, users and writers alike are sharing articles, bots are reporting the news, and even social media posts themselves are becoming headlines. Additionally, social media platforms have become a primary means for journalists to distribute their stories and build their brands.

With social media’s significance in so many facets of reporting, it only makes sense that journalists treat it as one of their necessary skills.

But relying on social media for leads and sources presents issues around some of journalism’s most important facets. Fact checking, source vetting, and overall trustworthiness are crucial to delivering great reporting. However, when pulling information or connecting with interview subjects on the net, how can reporters ensure they’re getting accurate information? Neiman Reports released a comprehensive verification guide in 2012. The golden rule for verifying web sources? Get them on the phone. If a journalist can communicate with a source offline, it demonstrates that source’s credibility. And of course, the more sources who can confirm a piece of information, the better.

Yet still, even with some surefire ways to verify sources and facts, it’s the trustworthiness that’s missing. There’s an ongoing discussion about the proliferation of fake news and the role social media plays in its spread. In September, both Facebook and Twitter turned over thousands of digital ads to Congress, as part of the investigation into ways in which Russia-backed advertising influenced the 2016 election. Also, a 2016 study, reported by the American Press Institute, showed that readers were less likely to trust an article when its information was sourced from social media. So, even though a new generation of journalists are willing to embrace a new way of reporting, not all readers are ready to take the leap with them.

Looking ahead, social media will serve as more than a way for journalists to interact with their readers, contribute to the greater conversation about their work, and amplify their professional profiles. Even though it’s quickly becoming one of their primary research tools, the implications of this are even bigger than just the power of social media.

Are we entering a new era of citizen journalism, in which readers and journalists are more informed than ever? In which the public demands, and receives, complete transparency from the powers that be? Or, will this push us in the other direction? Social media gives everyone a voice, and all these voices are contributing to excessive noise.

There could be sects of the population that remove themselves from the equation, either nestling into online echo chambers or disconnecting from the digital conversation completely. In a sense, it could become a modern form of tribalism. Social media, and its now-critical role in journalism, could reveal much more about our society than just the way it gets the news.

In the third and final part of our journalist series, we’ll dive deeper into the ways publications are using bots to report the news.