Is this a valid test of Social Media Newsgathering?

journalistA few days ago I came across this news story, in which a group of French journalists are to be holed up in a farmhouse somewhere with no access to normal news media but with access to Social Media – Twitter, Facebook, etc.  The idea is to see whether news can be effectively and accurately reported via Social media.

It’s an interesting idea, but, just like Celebrity Big Brother, one has to ask Is there a point?’  To start with, as has been pointed out by some commentators, by announcing it in this way it’s quite possible that people will try and game the system and attempt to get some totally ludicrous story in to the news programme that these reporters will be creating in their isolated time.  And there’s the lack of ability to follow up alternate sources who aren’t on Twitter, no way of getting a gut feel from the rest of the media, etc.  In the last week there was a particularly persistent rumour on Twitter that Johnny Depp had died, which indicated the ‘life of it’s own’ aspect that many rumours have, only this time it was spread incredibly quickly and virally across Twitter, hence reaching, in the words of the beer adverts, parts other rumours in the past could not reach.  I have a gut feel that the items that interest the vast majority of people on Social Networks are unlikely to be the content of conventional ‘serious news’ outlets.  More National Enquirer than National Interest, more Geek than GATT.  I can see some areas of overlap – the major big stories like Haiti, for example.

On the other hand, if by chance the news reported by these reporters reflects to a greater or lesser degree the output of the conventional media, then it has an awful lot to say about the efficacy of the ‘citizen journalist’ in pumping out on to social media outlets news that is editorially similar to that which is reported by the mainstream. 

A further possibility is that ‘hard’ news stories that don’t get conventionally reported but that do appear on social networks and web sites such as Indymedia might be picked up and run with.  To me, this is the most interesting outcome of all, and if the reporters and their parent stations play the game with a straight bat it could give us all an intriguing insight in to the editorial policies of conventional media and how this form of newsgathering of crowdsourced stories might start showing more sides of conventional news stories than typically gets reported.

One thing that does concern me about this sort of approach, apart from validation and verification, is analysis.  Everything is a scoop; the fast nature of Social Media means that the time taken to interpret and analyse what’s happening is time in which any number of other stories will zoom by.  This is a pattern we’ve already seen in 24 hour rolling news; everything is reported quickly; the facts (or rumours) are reported with no sense of context.  It’s like trying to get a picture of the strategic and political importance of a military engagement from  a soldier who spent the whole battle in a foxhole pinned down by enemy fire.  It’s a valid viewpoint in one way, but is not a method of reporting that produces truly informed citizens.

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