A recent summit featuring representatives from Storyful (a social curation service owned by News Corporation), Time and Vice News has given an, at times, painfully honest appraisal of just how dramatically social media has changed professional journalistic coverage of conflicts around the world.
Held in Dublin last week, these news organisations were pretty much agreed that the traditional model of “breaking news” had been … well, broken by social media. But there was a conundrum: social media content can be faked or plain inaccurate.
Interestingly, this isn’t just a concern of journalists. Traditional journalistic values about verifying the authenticity of content remains a big concern amongst millennials, the largest age group currently using social media. How does that relate to instantaneous Tweets or smartphone video production of a riot or a police crackdown or an atrocity as it actually happens? Storyful’s CEO, Mark Little didn’t mince his words:
“Social media has proved to us that the breaking news model is broken for good. It’s broken as a concept.
“As a business, it’s a really good business. But the concept that you, with the flashing ‘breaking news’ on the screen, are going to be the first to break something is completely bullshit, because someone out there has witnessed it.”
Storyful doesn’t try to break news; instead, it finds witnesses’ online posts and, with its team of 40 journalists working in real time to trace the original source, it brings the tweet or the video to a bigger audience. The most important thing for Storyful, Little said, was: “who’s the person on the ground with the camera-phone standing there right now… Authenticity has replaced authority as the new currency of this environment.”
However, Little conceded that it could sometimes be a false currency: social media was not only the best fact-checking service out there, it was also the best way of spreading a hoax, a point taken up by BBC Trending presenter and producer, Anne-Marie Tomchak. Hoaxers aren’t getting such an easy ride of it: Tomchak pointed out that it’s not just journalists who ask probing questions about the veracity of social media content – the users themselves “have become really discerning about what they’re seeing.”
Social media has irreversibly changed the worldwide dissemination of news content, but the importance of truth is still standing tall.