Thursday 31 March 2011

A Twitter Revolution in Breaking News

I'm hoping that you will have already seen my Frontline Club blog post on the way Twitter has been adopted as an essential tool to monitor breaking news by media organisations. If you haven't you can jump over now...

Or you can listen to me offering "some sharp observations" (in the words of Thomas Rid) on the topic in the War Studies Department podcast. (Warning: Other observations may have been less sharp...)

If either of those things catches your attention, do head over to the Frontline Club next Tuesday evening (5th April) for your first opportunity to get a copy of the full book chapter I have written on the topic.

As part of the launch event, a panel will be discussing future news tools for the modern media age. I'll be there if you want to talk to me about it (or anything else for that matter - I'm easy-going like that).

Further details and tickets are available here.

Monday 21 March 2011

Five years since the first tweet: a Twitter revolution in breaking news

Today, Twitter is celebrating its birthday. Five years after the first tweet was published, its impact on the field of Internet communication and many others beyond has been much debated.
Recent events in Tunisia and Egypt re-ignited the debate over Twitter’s role in the political process and whether the world has seen its first Twitter revolution.
Nearly two years ago, the “Twitter revolution” headline for post-election protests in both Moldova and Iran spread widely. The idea that pro-Western digital revolutionaries could bring down Communist and theocratic governments using a trendy internet tool was an alluring news story readily seized upon by the media.
Twitter does facilitate the spread of news and information, enabling individuals to combat censorship and undermine the stranglehold of state-controlled media. In a previous post, I offered a few thoughts comparing the role of Twitter in the political events in Moldova and Iran in 2009 with Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. 
There is much more work to be done in this area, but here I want to focus instead on Twitter’s impact on journalism. I argue that journalists’ dubbing of these events as “Twitter revolutions” is also reflective of the experience of their own changing working practices.
It points to a Twitter revolution occurring in the newsrooms of media organisations, evident in the increasing importance of Twitter for journalists covering breaking news stories.

Twitter’s emergence for newsgathering

Twitter was founded in 2006, but it was not until the microblogging service won an award at the 2007 South by Southwest festival that it began its rise to prominence. Initially envisaged as nothing more than a way to keep a few friends updated with your current ‘status’, by 2008 it was emerging as a potentially powerful newsgathering tool.
The Chinese earthquake in May 2008 was one of the first global news stories where significant attention was paid to this phenomenon and the event convinced some of the sceptics that it might be more than worthwhile.

The Mumbai attacks: Learning from challenges

A number of journalists and editors were becoming aware that Twitter was a useful place to search for breaking news.
But harnessing its potential to cover a fast-moving breaking story such as theMumbai terror attacks in November 2008 was far from straightforward. The 60-hour crisis in the Indian city was discussed by hundreds of people using Twitter.
The Mumbai hashtag (#Mumbai), which collated tweets about the incident, quickly became inundated and CNN estimated that 80 tweets were being sent every second.
Sifting through the stream of tweets, identifying useful Twitter accounts, and verifying the claims of Twitter users challenged journalists to apply existing editorial practices in a new environment.
The task was hindered by the fact that many journalists were also having to familiarise themselves with Twitter while attempting to report a complex breaking news story. BBC journalists covering the Mumbai crisis on the news website’s live updates page, for example, had little personal experience of Twitter but were urged by editors to incorporate tweets in their coverage.
Fortunately, they could call on the expertise of journalists working on the BBC’s User Generated Content (UGC) Hub – the Corporation’s dedicated department for sourcing and verifying audience material.

Reporting the Iran election crisis: Changing mindsets and working practices

Iran.jpgDuring the Iran election crisis in June 2009, there were also significant difficulties for journalists to overcome including: a large volume of noise and false information, inaccurate tweets, and a lack of balance available given thealmost exclusive use of Twitter by the Green Movement in Iran. Information overload was even more acute.
Former Director of BBC Global News, Richard Sambrook, estimated that at one stage up to 2,500 updates were being tweeted per minute.
By 2009, however, journalists had more experience of using Twitter which helped them to access eyewitnesses and contacts, identify leads, and track links to images and video.
In the context of a widespread media crackdown by the Iranian regime which included the jamming of satellites, the detention and expulsion of journalists and the blocking of internet websites, journalists turned to social networks for information.
Twitter was particularly useful because it allowed “multiple paths in and out for data”, meaning it was difficult for the Iranian regime to completely censor without cutting off Internet access altogether.  
Trushar Barot, who was working on the BBC’s UGC hub during the Iran election crisis, said the BBC used Twitter to monitor rumours and “chatter” on the web, contact sources, and glean information on the time and location of future demonstrations.
Barot noted that “after a week or so, there were certain bloggers and Twitter accounts that we could trust” because what they were saying was consistently confirmed by wire reports. After this vetting process, several key Twitter accounts were identified as being reliable sources of information.
The BBC’s experience of covering Iran helped change mindsets among BBC journalists who were previously sceptical of the value of Twitter as a newsgathering tool.  
Similarly, CNN’s Deborah Rayner, the Managing Editor for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, said at a conference that year that the broadcaster’s journalists covering Iran had “never experienced newsgathering like it”.
Journalists were “utterly overwhelmed” by the volume of information that was coming in from the streets of Tehran. Twitter and Facebook were used to source potential news stories and YouTube provided “an endless stream of video”. She claimed it “had been a revolution” in news
gathering; “the world had changed”.

Twitter: An everyday tool for journalists working in breaking news

twitter.jpgBy 2010, Twitter had become “a more effective system than any single news organisation at servicing breaking news”, according to Jay Rosen. For some journalists working in breaking news, such as BBC Defence and Security producer, Stuart Hughes, and Sky News field producer, Neal Mann, it has become an essential tool.
Stuart Hughes says previously he had a few main sources of information to track breaking news, but Twitter allows him to monitor those sources and several hundred others at the same time.
He is now rarely surprised by stories in newspapers because Twitter has already made him aware of the news and he is able to quickly monitor broadcast media competitors.
Sky News journalist Neal Mann has discovered that regular tweeting, a systematic approach to following Twitter users who are “really interested in news”, and the development of a significant number of Twitter followers (currently over 8,000) means that people often contact him through Twitter with news and information.
For some stories, such as the ongoing activities of the whistle-blowing organisation, Wikileaks, Mann claims Twitter is the only way to fully follow developments as a journalist.

A Twitter revolution in breaking news

A Twitter revolution in the practices of journalists covering breaking news has significant implications for journalism. It places pressure on the traditional news agency wires which are now regularly slower with the news than Twitter’s easily-updated network.
It thus increases the speed of the news cycle, enabling journalists to access sources very quickly in a breaking news crisis and it is part of a broader trend whereby journalists are operating in a “live” online news medium.
The Twitter revolution in breaking news is far from complete: many journalists still rely on more traditional methods and it is merely one tool in an evolving digital media landscape.
Journalists should be prepared, however, for a future where Twitter, or a similar web-based communication system that acts as a customisable and searchable global news wire, will become an indispensable tool for monitoring breaking news.
This is an edited extract of a chapter by Daniel Bennett for a new book Face the Future: Tools for a Modern Media Age, which is being launched at an event at the Frontline Club on 5 April.
Photo credits: Egypt: RamyRaoof; Iran:"SIR: Poseyal : KNIGHT of the DESPOSYNI; Twitter: DavidErickson via creative commons licences

Russian bloggers acting as a 'Fifth Estate'

Kommersant, the Russian business daily, was forced to retract an article which criticised an anti-corruption blogger, Aleksey Navalnyy, earlier this month.

The article had attempted to discredit Navalnyy's investigation into fraud at the state-owned pipeline company, Transneft last November.

Bloggers pointed out a number of inaccuracies in the Kommersant piece which forced senior management to issue an apology.

BBC Monitoring Stephen Ennis has the full story. He concludes...
"The incident...illustrates the shifts of power and influence on the media scene in Russia. First, it shows the authority commanded by Navalnyy and the fact that he cannot be attacked with impunity. 
Second, it demonstrates the ability of the online community to police the activities of major players in the mainstream media. None of Kommersant's rivals on the newsstands touched the story. It was left to bloggers to hold the paper to account. 
For media commentator Andrey Miroshnichenko, the episode was an illustration of how the online community can act as what he calls a "viral editor".

Friday 18 March 2011

BBC closes Have Your Say

BBC News is to close Have Your Say - its comment and debate page for topical news stories. The exact closing date is not yet known, but the BBC say early April is "most likely".

The news was revealed in a blog post by social media editor, Alex Gubbay, which outlined the future of the social experience on the BBC website.

Rather than have "silos" of interactivity on individual webpages, the aim is to feature comment across the news website. The BBC is introducing Editors Picks and an option to recommend comments, which will "showcase interesting additional insight and perspective".

These changes have been in development for some time. In June 2010, Assistant Editor of Interactivity, Matthew Eltringham, told a News Rewired conference that the BBC was considering the introduction of Editors Picks and a Daily Mail style comment system with the ability for users to recommend comments.

Eltringham also indicated that Have Your Say, having moved to a BBC blog format, was in a "transitional phase". It appears that there might already have been talk of phasing it out.

It signals the next stage in the evolution of the BBC's approach to interactivity and the move is part of a broader range of changes to the BBC news website outlined by the editor, Steve Herrmann, on Wednesday.

Displaying audience comment has been a technical and editorial conundrum for a number of years at the BBC. Comments on blogs were strangled by spam in 2007 and various elements of comment moderation have been outsourced to Tempero.

The level of abuse in comments and the sheer volume that the BBC receives has also led senior correspondents such as Jonathan Agnew and Nick Robinson.

(And finally...the closure of Have Your Say means the people at Speak Your Branes, a blog that would sarcastically shred some of the more "interesting" contributions, will have to find themselves target.)

Thursday 17 March 2011

How blogs have changed journalism

Felix Salmon, a Reuters blogger, considers how blogs have changed journalism. Among other things, he notes:

  • "I find pretty big differences in how I write, depending on whether it’s for a traditional media outlet or for the blog. I have a more conversational voice on the blog — I think of any given post as being part of a much broader conversation between bloggers and between me and my readers."
  • "The main impact I think is the way that blog reporting can iterate. In traditional media, you report the story and then you publish it; with blogs, you can start with something much less fully formed and then come back at it over time in many ways and from many angles."
  • "Blogging has clearly given readers a much wider range of news sources to choose from, and it’s great that readers are no longer confined to getting their news from a handful of outlets." 
  • [Twitter] has "massively increased the velocity of news: people now know what’s going on before it’s formally reported." 
  • "In general, news sites are becoming bloggier, with more assiduous editorial standards, while big blog sites are becoming newsier; that trend is likely to continue."
I have just the odd thought tucked away here and there on this issue, but all in good time...

Wednesday 16 March 2011

How the BBC challenges censorship in Iran and China

There was an interesting article in The Guardian a few days ago documenting how the BBC is combating censorship in Iran and China using social media (and some good old-fashioned journalism).

At a South by Southwest festival panel, Sanam Dolatshahi, producer and presenter with BBC Persian TV, described an information struggle with the Iranian regime: "they would jam our footage and show their own version of events – using the same UGC, but to tell a different story, a different version of events. They would also try to make us broadcast wrong stuff so that we would lose our credibility."

She suggested that even more emphasis was subsequently placed on "verification and cross-checking of our sources."

Meanwhile, the head of BBC China, Raymond Li, said he uses microblogging websites to publish material. He finds that regulation is less prohibitive on these sites and he can outwit state censors. But he said it required no little skill and plenty of care.

Iran has a history of jamming BBC Persian TV satellites, while China blocks the BBC website every now and then. Like in 1998 or in 2010

Tuesday 15 March 2011

BBC journalist's blog post leads to P.J. Crowley resignation

Last Thursday, BBC journalist Philippa Thomas broke a news story on her blog.

She reported the comments of U.S. State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, who had described the detention of alleged Wikileaks source, Bradley Manning, as "stupid" at a talk at MIT.

Philip resigned four days later, and as he tidied his desk, paused to state that "the exercise of power in today’s challenging times and relentless media environment must be prudent and consistent with our laws and values".

Meanwhile Philippa, who is on sabbatical at Harvard exploring the world of new media, analysed her personal experience of the convergent nature of the media system in an interesting blog post. She may well have "learned at first hand the power of the blog".

But she also wondered whether the key to the story was her role as "a professional journalist for a well-established news outlet like the BBC" and thus has "a voice that can emerge more clearly from the white noise of the blogosphere."

Perhaps, it's both.

But whatever it is, it sure seems like a good way to explore the world of new media.
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