Like many other people these days, it seems an impossible task for me to turn on a computer without first logging in to facebook.com, closely followed by twitter.com. I find that, alongside a cup of tea, a little bit of light procrastination is the best way to start the morning and ease into the day’s workload. It’s a chance to catch up on all the latest happenings whether they are posted from friends, celebrities or just particularly interesting people. But I also feel it’s a fantastic source for updates on UK or even global news and for discovering the latest trends. Usually, I would allow myself half an hour to have a thorough browse and share my own semi-interesting thoughts with my followers. Then I am free to continue with my daily pursuits.
March 11th was one such typical morning. Yet, social media played a larger part in that day than I ever could have expected. Waiting for me at the top of my twitter newsfeed was a tweet from @BBCBreaking: “Huge earthquake hits Japan.” Shocked, I scrolled down. @guardiannews: “powerful earthquake hits Japan,” @TelegraphNews: “Tsunami hits Japan after 8.8 magnitude earthquake.” And then my eyes caught the trend on the right hand side simply stating “#pray for Japan.” I, and the rest of the world, said a prayer for all those affected, although, the number was yet to be known.
The rest of the day was spent frantically watching each and every bulletin trending on twitter. I was redirected to news websites with more devastating information, images and videos. It showed a country under ruin, under rubble, under water. Few buildings had survived. Few people had survived.
And for those who had survived, their lives had been shattered.
Youtube videos were uploaded of the tsunami rapidly covering the land, boats crushed under bridges, cars washed away, homes drowned. It was truly terrifying to watch. I found myself moved to tears as images were uploaded onto Flickr as the crisis was unfolding. A small boy and his father are pictured looking out into the distance, facing the destruction that was once their home. With their backs to the audience, we can only imagine their saddened expressions. Another image showed a tiny little girl, perhaps no older than 5, being rescued from the rubble. I wondered what she was thinking and feeling behind her confused and worried little face. I wondered whether behind the photographer she had parents waiting to meet her, or whether hers was another tragic story.
Facebook seemed to be a popular medium for reassuring loved ones that all was well. It was a distressing time but the Japanese locals and those in the country on work or on holiday were desperate to let everyone know they were safe. Others hadn’t been so fortunate. On March 12th @guardiannews shared on twitter: ‘Japan mourns amid fears quake toll could hit 10,000.’
Piece by piece, each social network website played a significant part in informing and showing the world the tragedy as and when it happened. It then dawned on me the huge impact social media has on global news reporting. How a simple four-word tweet had grabbed hold of my attention and maintained it for an entire day through continuous reports of the horrendous natural disaster. Not only by informing through the one social platform but by redirecting me to their websites with more details, to other related articles and informing of special not-to-miss news programmes.
It seems that social media has become a new platform for journalism and a new and accessible method for distribution. Had I not logged into my twitter account it is likely that the message would not have reached me so quickly and the sheer enormity of the situation may not have been fully grasped had I not seen the massive response from journalists and users around the world. I decided to speak to journalists in the professional industry to discover to what extent social media is reshaping journalistic practices.
Karen Fowler-Watt, ex journalist for the BBC and senior lecturer at Bournemouth University, explained to me how Journalists are utilising social media to get their stories out quickly and effectively. She said: “Journalists’ lives have been transformed… there is no more waiting for live feeds or pieces to camera as they can tweet a headline and follow up in more depth later.”
It is this referral to newspapers and websites for more depth that is perhaps acting as a life-saver to the newspaper. It can be seen to be generating traffic to newspaper websites and from there to the printed papers.
Reading Chronicle editor, Sally Stevens, said social media platforms are not only effective for informing the public of breaking news but also for reporters who use the online mediums as a source for information. She said: “Reporters here will use Facebook and Twitter to track people involved in specific issues and to invite people to send in their personal experiences.” This was seen during the recent events in Japan with many news teams requesting additional information from their Twitter followers. @TelegraphNews wrote: “If you have any pictures/videos from the earthquake in #Japan or #tsunami damage, please email.” Sally explained that this is not a new technique as radio and television news have been asking their audiences to contact them for many years, but online media makes this a more accessible task.
On the 15th January 2009 it was twitter users that broke the news of the plane that crashed in New York’s Hudson River. @JimHanrahan was the first to tweet: “I just watched a plane crash into the hudson rive [sic] in manhattan.” At this event citizen journalism was at its finest with images, videos and tweets documenting the unfolding drama. It was fifteen minutes after this that the mainstream media began to report on the crash.
Social media has also been a great source for contacts for showbiz entertainment news. Celebrities left, right and centre have their own Twitter and Facebook pages now which they continuously use to promote their latest news, both personal and professional. Ex news editor of financialtimes.com and Bournemouth University lecturer, Liisa Rohumaa, said: “Showbiz journalists track twitter for updates, for example about Lilly Allen’s pregnancy, as well as to break scoops, such as when TMZ used twitter to announce Michael Jackson’s death.”
I must admit, breaking news for celebrities seems to feature rather heavily on my twitter feed due to the number of celebrity gossip gurus and magazines I follow. For me it has perfectly transformed the art of celeb spying. A recent example tweeted by @OK read: “Kym Marsh has given birth to a baby girl! Full story on its way…” Of course, I stayed tune.
But with all the positives of social media it seems a little too good to be true. There must be some downsides surely?
Sally Stevens said it’s extremely frustrating when a reporter accidentally gives away an exclusive they are working on due to the fact that social media is such an open forum for conversation. Asked the same question, Karen Fowler-Watt explained to me that consumers today are bombarded with alternative ways of engaging with the news due to the many prompts to create traffic via social media. When a viewer sits down to watch the news or listen to the radio they are repetitively told to follow them on Twitter or to become a Facebook fan which can be quite frankly annoying. Also, many academics argue that social media can encourage journalists to lapse into opinion reporting, often blurring the boundary between an objective account and a subjective story. But she said: “Social media is here to stay and the key is that journalism practice embraces it but still keeps a beady eye on the need to be impartial and to present a balanced account.”
Yes, whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay. And I believe it’s for the good of both the public and the professional journalistic practice. Social media has the power to provide fascinating, real time running reports and real life accounts of major incidents which alongside traditional, trusted methods of reporting creates an eye-opening story. As horrific as it was to watch, it’s undeniable that the ability to share over the internet information and footage of the Japan disaster from those experiencing it at that very second, has transformed journalism.
Photos: google images/flickr/twitpic
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