The debate about whether journalists can—or should—compete with social media requires us to go back to basics and ask: What has really changed for journalists in the aftermath of the Boston bombings coverage? The answer: Nothing, except timing—and timing is everything.
There are two primary categories of great stories. The first is investigative journalism, news that is discovered and explained by the media. Investigative journalism is more relevant today than ever before because watchdog reporting is a key part of any democratic civil society. Unfortunately, this function is too often threatened by lack of vision, time and money. As audiences increasingly come to consider standard news a public service they can get for free, publishing exclusive investigative pieces is one way to create high-revenue content streams.
The second is breaking news, stories like the Boston bombings that can now be witnessed and reported by anybody. It has always been rare to have a journalist on the spot when a breaking news event occurs, except for specific kinds of coverage such as war reporting. Most of the time, reporters go to the scene, find and interview witnesses, collect testimonies, including rumors, and verify the information to build a narrative. Media organizations used to have exclusivity in distributing breaking news, but this competitive advantage has been eliminated with the rise of social media.
So, how should we handle breaking news in the age of social media?
First, media brands need to determine a strategic direction based on their own cultures, skills, readerships and business models. It’s fine, perhaps even recommended, to avoid crazy knee-jerk reactions to breaking news, when time seems suspended and facts mingle with rumors. One way to add value at these times is to focus only on the big picture, not the incessant Twitter stream, and to work on careful, contextual retrospective storytelling. A niche market is willing to pay for that kind of journalism, if you build your brand around this value proposition and adapt your business model accordingly.
For mainstream brands, it’s different. They still have to be part of the show to keep their audiences engaged. But competing with social media on speed, relevance and accuracy—trying to achieve all of these at the same time—is an illusion. The real journalistic added value lies more in figuring out the context in which the breaking news event is happening and providing an informed analysis of that. And here’s where timing comes in. Context and analysis take time. The challenge is to fill the gap between the constant rush of rumor and the considered pace of context.
There are two pitfalls to avoid. One is reporting the wrong information, since that undermines brand credibility and the value the public would like to find in professional journalism. But news organizations can’t stay silent when social media is producing so much noise, since this could give audiences the impression that we are hiding information, which could contribute to a further lack of trust.
Being part of the breaking news action isn’t just for journalists anymore. The audience also wants to experience this excitement. This is their beat now, too. We can’t blame them for loving the same thing we do. But we still have a mission: To organize the noise through new applications for the Web and mobile devices.
One solution could be an all-in-one app for peer-to-peer journalism that displays confirmed and reliable facts as well as the most credible unconfirmed reports. This app, specifically designed for breaking news, would be controlled and curated by professional journalists. First, it would clearly highlight what is known about the news event and offer a vetted selection of the most credible people to follow on social media. This sharply edited Twitter list creates a relevant, reliable feed of breaking news. Journalists’ ability to figure out quickly whom to follow and what to read has always been a large part of the job, and it’s still a competitive advantage. So the app would also provide a list of must-read pieces and must-see photos and videos from all over the Web.
Curation doesn’t mean endorsement, however. This approach will only work if we engage audiences and journalists within the same platform, using an ombudsman to explain how we are working and why we are only reporting certain facts. Building brands on facts and curated discussions is all about transparency. Explaining again and again what is happening behind the journalistic scenes, especially in breaking news situations, is never a waste of time.
Ludovic Blecher, a 2013 Nieman Fellow, is executive director and editor-in-chief of Liberation.fr.
MORE COVERAGE OF THE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS
Organize the Noise: Tweeting Live from the Boston Manhunt
By Seth Mnookin and Hong Qu
Reporting on Radicalization
By Souad Mekhennet
New Challenges, New Rewards for Journalists on Social Media
By Borja Echevarría de la Gándara