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How social media is changing breaking news at the scene

A close-up view of the homepage of the microblogging website Twitter on June 1, 2011 in London, England.
A close-up view of the homepage of the microblogging website Twitter on June 1, 2011 in London, England.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

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The quickest reports from the scene of the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colorado didn’t come from the police or traditional media; they instead came from social sites like Twitter and Reddit.

Reddit quickly became a go-to spot for wide-ranging information about the shooting, from a comprehensive timeline of police activity to posts from people who were injured in the movie theater. One person on Reddit who claimed to be at the movie theater even uploaded pictures of a bullet wound and bloody T-shirt from the incident.

It wasn’t social media’s first foray into journalism this month, Twitter and Reddit was also a comprehensive source for a shooting at a block party in Scarborough, Ontario.

Technology magazine, GigaOM, writer Mathew Ingram said there has been an increase in the role social media is playing in breaking news even before reporters enter the scene. It could be argued because of the immediacy and availability of eyewitness accounts via social networking sites like Reddit, that social media could be a news source “as good or possibly better than traditional news source,” Ingram said.

Journalist and director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Tom Rosenstiel said social networking tools are able to “complement” already existing media technologies, giving us the opportunity for much better journalism, but it does not make journalists obsolete.

“The reason you see this networked journalism or user generated content come into play during times of crisis like this is because eyewitness, citizen reporting of what they saw or what happened to them or what it they felt like fits very well and adds dramatically to the potential richness to what we can learn,” he said.

Rosenstiel pointed out many journalists may feel intimidated or in competition with new media such as social networking, but rather than aiming to win the “race” to break news, it’s important journalists remain accurate.

“Everyone can be in the breaking news business now,” he said. “[But] speed is the enemy of accuracy.”

A caller from West Hollywood, DeeDee, summarized the take-away best: social media and hardline, traditional journalism both have different, but necessary roles in our changing tech-savvy world.

“Yes, social media gives us another outlook into the happenings [and] what’s going on, but the news media still needs to maintain accuracy and if that means they can’t report it as quickly as social media, then I think that that’s ok,” she said. “When something like this happens, we look at the emotional impact and then we need the factual impact. We’re still relying on news media to provide us that factual information.”


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Mathew Ingram, senior writer for GigaOM

Tom Rosenstiel, author, journalist, and founder and director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), a research organization that studies the news media, and part of the Pew Research Center