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Who’s a Journalist in the Twitter Age?

Conference examines impact of social media


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Speakers at The Media Landscape: How Social Journalism Is Changing the News Industry conference included (from left) Thomas Fiedler, Lisa van der Pool, Adam Gaffin, Stephen Quigley, and Peter Shankman. Photo by Nathaniel Boyle. Video by Phil Zekos

These days, anyone with a smartphone or a laptop can report on the news, blasting out updates on social media outlets to millions of people around the world. The question is, are they journalists?

That was the topic a panel of news and public relations professionals tackled at the conference The Media Landscape: How Social Journalism Is Changing the News Industry, held Tuesday evening in the Trustees Ballroom. The group discussed how social media benefits journalism, and why, despite hard times facing the news business, journalists are still essential to society.

Coincidentally, the event took place on a night when the world was tuning in to traditional news outlets like CNN and to social media networks like Twitter for breaking updates on the dramatic rescue of 33 trapped Chilean miners. The panel used the rescue throughout the evening as an example illustrating the relationship between the two news sources.Moderator Peter Shankman (@petershankman) (CGS’92, COM’94) kept his smartphone close by during the evening to update the crowd on the story. “We don’t consider it rude if you spend the entire time tonight looking down,” he said, encouraging the crowd to tweet out quotes from the panel. “It’s a sign that you like what we’re doing.” The crowd followed suit, tweeting quotes and questions to the panelists using the hashtag #BUmedia.

Shankman is founder of Help a Reporter Out, a website that connects journalists with experts through email and social media. The other panelists were Thomas Fiedler (COM’71), College of Communication dean and former editor of the Miami Herald, Lisa van der Pool (COM’97), broadcast editor and reporter for the Boston Business Journal, Adam Gaffin, founder and editor of Universal Hub, a community news and information site, and Stephen Quigley (SED’87), a COM associate professor of public relations. The event was organized by BU’s Marketing & Communications media relations department and was attended by close to 80 people, from BU and other local colleges, PR firms, and publications such as the Boston Phoenix.

The emergence of social media has changed the way that the media relations department thinks about news and public relations at the University, said public relations director Mary Tunney, lead organizer of the conference. “We’ve now become content creators, and we also see the importance of engaging in, and being facilitators of, the conversation. We were thrilled with our panel, led by Peter Shankman, who has long been an authority on social media. With his insight and quick wit, he led a lively and spirited conversation.”

Today, any new information or sound bite seems to pass as news, Quigley said, but it’s important to make a clear distinction between news from traditional media outlets and from social media sites. “These phenomena are so intertwined that it’s impossible in many instances to separate,” he said.

Van der Pool echoed the sentiment of many Twitter users when she said she liked being able to read updates from people at the scene of an accident, for example, because they are sharing what they see, in real time. Those on-the-spot accounts—of fires, crime, even train and airline delays—have become part of the average news consumer’s diet. “Even if it’s not a respected source,” van der Pool said, “if it’s just someone out there on the ground, you want to know what they’re seeing and hearing about it.”

So, where are the traditional journalists when news breaks? Is news broken with the first word of the story, or only after someone confirms the facts? Several lies have been spread with social media. A Washington Post reporter who wanted to test the accuracy of social media reporting spread a rumor to see who would retweet his message. He was suspended. “Michael Jackson was the first celebrity to die on Twitter who actually died,” Shankman said. He believes that trained journalists are vital, because they know how to provide context and check their facts before publishing a story.

In response, Gaffin said, “Well, why do you trust or not trust the New York Times? Over time, are they accurate? Same with social media. Over time you get to see if this person is accurate. With social media, there’s an automatic correction filter. If someone is repeatedly getting corrected, then you won’t follow them.”

Shankman knows about the power of social media. His website is designed to help reporters find sources for their stories; more than 100,000 sources have signed up to be interviewed on topics ranging from business to lifestyle.

He noted that consumers no longer rely on, say, the Boston Globe and their favorite critics for dinner and movie reviews. Instead, they turn to Twitter or Yelp, and that, Shankman said, implies that they have a certain level of trust in the opinions of both friends and strangers. He pointed to a recent flap over the Gap’s new logo. Immediately after unveiling the design, bloggers voiced their displeasure so strongly that the company decided after only a few days to go back to the old logo. That’s something that never would have happened a few years ago, Shankman said, but social media gives ordinary people a powerful soapbox.

“People say the newspapers are dying, but I think it’s just that the people who were telling us how to think are going away,” Shankman said. “Not the investigative journalists, but the reviewers and the critics. So where is the place for the journalist?”

The panel agreed that there will always be a need for well-informed, well-trained journalists to moderate the discussion and provide context for the story.

“Journalism is in some ways going back to its fundamentals,” Fiedler said, “which is building its core around finding that information that fits the definition of news and putting it out there so there is a baseline of knowledge that the rest of us can benefit from, and this isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes the good information that a journalist can use can come from the millions of other people out there listening, who now have a way to communicate that they previously didn’t have.”

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Who’s a Journalist in the Twitter Age?

  • Susan Chaityn Lebovits on 10.15.2010 at 8:51 am

    Who's a Journalist in the twitter age?

    Really nice story, Amy. Having written for the Boston Globe for a number of years, it’s been very exciting to see the many changes that are occurring in journalism. While there is a big difference between news from traditional media outlets and from social media sites, they both serve very important roles. You can’t beat Yelp! and Chowhound for restaurant reviews, TripAdvisor for travel, and and outlets like the NYT and WSJ for hard news. Looking forward to seeing what will be new in 2011, and where apps like foursquare will go.

  • Rizwan Noor on 11.04.2010 at 8:04 am


    A very Nice article .

    Although, Every person is a so-called writer nowadays but only a handful of people write for the true sake of journalism
    and It is very easy to distinguish them from others by thier writing style.

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