Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Protecting Newsgathering through the Sustainable Use of Social Media

All journalists old enough to have worked in a pre-social media world, will have had that moment. That moment when it clicked in your brain. That moment when you realised the power of social media, the moment of utility. You knew it was good. You knew it was changing the world. You knew it was THE disrupter of our journalistic times. But there was still that moment that it just clicked. For some it was the Arab Spring in Egypt, for others, earlier still, the Iranian Protests of 2009, for others the onset of the Syrian conflict. For me, and probably I was a relative latecomer to the party, for me it was the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul of 2013. The interesting thing about Gezi is that it encapsulates the value of social media, its uses, its opportunities but it also encapsulates the risk and the ethical dangers that we are creating by our harvesting - and I use the word harvesting expressly - of social media content without thought for the uploader. I am convinced that, if we are not careful, the way we are using sourcing and verifying social media today could swallow us all and lead to a situation where the best reporting opportunity of our generation dries up. 

So, why was Gezi my clicking point? In 2013, I was a journalist, running a newsroom, sitting in Geneva, Switzerland, in an office in the middle of a nice, green, boring Swiss park. The kind of park that could never and would never become a shopping centre. Our service was to distribute pictures of these protests in the centre of Europe’s most populous city. As a journalist, my interest was piqued. Here was something different. I’d covered every major story since I first set foot in an international newsroom in 2002 as my then prime minister and the US president were starting to rattle their sabres over Iraq. I’d covered the Atocha attacks in Madrid. I’d covered the Beslan school siege in Dagestan. I’d covered the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. All more powerful stories in many ways, but they were very much stories covered by reporters on the ground. There was a live Associated Press camera filming the school siege as it was lifted in Beslan. Reporters were on the ground in Madrid. And NHK - Japan’s Public Television - famously had 14 helicopters in the air filming the aftermath of the tsunami in Sendai Province. 

Gezi was different. While the Turkish television famously showed a documentary on penguins, the story on the street was being told by mobile phones. Twitter was the main tool, although we saw many other platforms in use and we’d see more come on line and show their utility during further protests in Istanbul - Periscope, for example, is a child of Turkish unrest. It was on Twitter that we saw the calm of Gezi. It was on Twitter that we saw the police violently intervene. It was on Twitter that we saw the use of Water Cannon and Tear Gas on peaceful protesters. 

Research by New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Laboratory showed there were 2 million tweets around the Gezi protests - 90 percent of which came from within Turkey itself (1). Such was the impact of social media that Turkey’s then Prime Minister named it one of the biggest menaces to society. Turkey was, in 2013 and to this day, a divided country. Yet, the mainstream was only showing one side of that divide. It was through social media that we saw the other side. Indeed, so active were my contacts on social media that Google Chrome asked me if it should not translate my Facebook timeline from Turkish to English. 

This is a trend we see globally now. Social media is allowing us - as journalists - access to the other side of stories that we previously were not given, to the immediacy of stories that we would not otherwise have. Imagine the conflict in Syria in a pre-YouTube age. We would be telling the story through the eyes of Syrian state news organisations by now. Would we truly have understood how the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City came to pass? Would campaigns such as Black Lives Matter have emerged without those videos? Would we know how the favelas were cleared in Rio ahead of the Olympics? The answer is clearly no. So, social media and the content it produces is helping us to understand the world better. It’s making us aware of what goes on around us. This is a wonderful opportunity. The service it provides truly is fantastic. 

This global phenomenon has disrupted newsgathering and storytelling over the past decade. There are stories we can no longer tell without social media content. But this means that today’s journalist must be tuned to it. Today’s journalist must have the skills and knowledge to source, verify and use UGC sourced from social media. Discovery, as Majd Khalifeh explained, can put you ahead of your competitors, put you ahead of the news agencies, and allow you to break stories. Verification, as Rose Younes, Eliza Mackintosh and Mahmoud Ghazayel explained, is key to not falling over and telling the wrong story. And doing all that and telling the story in the right way, as Ethar El Katatney explained, is key to engaging today’s audience. Through these book experts have brought to you some of the challenges that the individual may face when thinking about using social media for newsgathering for the first time. Alongside techniques of discovery, verification and engagement, true experts have considered issues around how and why photograph manipulation happens. We discussed some of the new news organisations that were able to emerge thanks to these techniques and tell the other side of important, world-shifting events. We have discussed new trends and new platforms that today’s journalist has to think about - such as chat apps - and analysed data around the popularity of different social media platforms in different countries across the Arab region. We have thought about the senior editor, and what they should know, and, finally, we have thought about some of the ethical considerations each journalist should hold in their mind when working with social media. 

One thing we must hold close to our thoughts, however, is the fact that we are taking and using content that is not ours, that has been produced and shared by someone who is not us, who is not necessarily a journalist at all. Certainly not a journalist in our employ. All of this highlights just how critical it is for us to protect the eyewitness. To make sure that, in telling these stories, in trying to do the right thing, that we don’t then put the eyewitness at risk. This risk can be varied. Post Gezi, Turkish users of social media have been prosecuted for their posts, or even for sharing other people’s posts. This was one of the reasons the fabulous @140journos was created in Turkey - to collate non-mainstream voices and protect them with the cloak of unity - I Am Spartacus, if you like. Chris LeDay - the man who posted the video of Alton Sterling being shot and killed by Baton Rouge police in the United States in January 2016 - was detained by police just 24 hours after putting the video on social media. As journalists we need to be aware of this, and take our responsibilities here very seriously. My fear is, if we don’t understand the cost to the individual of social media newsgathering, this generation disruptor could be closed to us forever. 

One of our most stark observations around the use of social media content by journalists is the questionable etiquette surrounding permission requests. The question 'can we use your photo?' is rarely accompanied by 'are you OK?' or 'are you safe?' or, even, 'did you take this?'. Any reference to crediting or licensing is usually glossed over, if mentioned at all, and often these ‘accidental journalists’ are placed under extreme pressure to respond immediately.

In January 2015 a man called Jordi Mir was sitting working from his apartment on the top floor of a building on the Boulevard Richard Lenoir in Paris. On that morning, Jordi Mir saw, what he thought, was a bank robbery taking place across the street. A police officer had been wounded and was lying prostrate on the floor. As a tech savvy individual who lived and shared much of his life on social media platforms, he took his smartphone out of his pocket and started filming. It was, as much as anything a reflex. 

Except this wasn’t a bank robbery - and the two men walking towards the wounded police officer were not colleagues running to help. They were the two brothers who had just murdered eleven people inside the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Five seconds after Jordi Mir started filming, they made Ahmet Mirabet their 12th victim of that day. Mir had filmed it all. The terrorists walking over to Mirabet, pulling the trigger on their automatic weapons, assassinating him and driving off. Alone in his apartment, Mir as a reflex shared the video on Facebook. 15 minutes later, when he’d calmed down, he realised that he should not have shared the video - and removed it - but it was too late. The video of the assassination of Ahmet Mirabet had gone viral. One of Mir’s friends had scraped it and uploaded it to YouTube. Other journalists had found Mir’s original video and taken it for their own use. Screengrabs were taken. Yet, only a handful of journalistic organisations had asked Mir’s permission. Mir’s video appeared in the lunchtime bulletins of France’s two biggest broadcasters, and appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the world the next day. 

Traumatised not only by what he saw. He had, let us not forget, just witnessed the cold-blooded assassination of a wounded police officer from his kitchen window. Traumatic enough for anyone. Mir is also traumatised by what he experienced because he shared the video on social media. Traumatised by the media attention. Traumatised by the police attention. Traumatised by having his video viewed around the world and even used as evidence of crackpot conspiracies. Journalists failed in their duty of care to Mir that January day - as they did, to be frank, with most of the uploaders they spoke to. We saw journalists granting permission to other news networks for them to use pictures they had retweeted on Twitter. We saw credit given to uploaders without their agreement - meaning that, if you now search for their names on the internet, you find the picture they captured on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, not their freelance business. We saw news organisations show their audiences the moment Ahmet Mirabet died without forethought or warning. Of course, we are not speaking of every journalist or every news organisation. These are the worst examples - but they should be a warning to all of us in the industry.

David Crunelle experienced the wrath of a media storm during the terrorist attack on Brussels airport in March of this year. Crunelle was inside the airport terminal when the blasts went off and tweeted the words, in French: “Two Explosions at Brussels Airport”. This was at 8 am. By 10 am, just two hours later, he had received 10,000 notifications on his smartphone - from jihadists, from concerned friends and, yes, from journalists. It was a totally unmanageable situation - and, more concerning here, was the lack of sympathy from journalists for Crunelle’s predicament. Like Jordi Mir, he had just seen an outrageous act of violence. He had, through reflex, shared it with the world on social media. And social media savvy journalists had tracked him down. Crunelle spent the remainder of the day in negotiations with news organisations. Many contacted him in the most unethical of ways. They tracked him down via his family members. They tracked him down through his professional clients. He eventually sold his video exclusively to a news organisation as much to get away from the storm. He certainly wasn’t after money or fame - and the experience brought him neither. 

When I first started looking at the impact of social media on newsrooms, I would have argued that the transition from what Mir experienced - his content effectively stolen, his rights as the producer of a video violated - to the many requests Crunelle received for permission to use his content - was a good thing. I argued for a request to be made, permission to be granted and content ownership to be credited. Now, having witnessed the transition that I argued for come to pass, I’m not so sure. We still haven’t - and this is the important point here - found the solution. Content theft, and use without agreement is not the answer - even if this is protected in many jurisdictions through fair usage laws (laws which defend the public’s right to know during important events). But nor is a swarm of journalists descending on a poor, unsuspecting person who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and capture a video or a picture. 

Many of the responses I’ve heard to these stories have not been so sympathetic. It was Mir’s fault - what a weird thing to upload to Facebook. If I were David Crunelle, I would have just turned off my telephone. We had a duty to show the videos and we were trying to do the right thing. However, I would argue, these answers are not fair and they certainly share no empathy with what the victim has witnessed. As journalists, to do our job, surely we need empathy? We need these people to tell our stories, we need them to tell our stories - so just pushing them to turn off their phone notifications, to not upload videos, to not engage with the media surely pushes us back to a world where we rely on traditional gatekeepers to tell us stories. 

As journalists, we have to ask ourselves how we can solve this challenge. The consecutive quandary around meeting the suggested standards of verification, respecting the individual’s copyright over content they have produced and the ethical standards of not traumatising an eyewitness who has just experienced a truly horrendous and tragic event first hand. As noted in earlier chapters of this book, we argue that one of the crucial steps of verification is to confirm this identity of the content creator. We argue that one of the crucial steps of copyright clearance is to ask for permission to use a piece of content from the content creator. We argue that we must understand what the content creator has gone through and respect them. This is a challenging paradox that requires the combined brainpower of newsrooms around the world. The solutions lie in better metadata solutions. They lie in ethical social media training for each and every journalist, editor and managing editor sitting in newsrooms today.

Journalists have to learn to use social media correctly. This applies to discovery of content, it applies to verification, and it applies to engaging with audiences and understanding new technologies. It means thinking about the ramifications of archiving - or disappearing records of conflict. It means thinking about new human resource challenges and the potential impact of vicarious trauma. It also means thinking about the uploader and our engagement with the uploader. Because, if we don’t put the content creator first and foremost in our mind when developing tools and workflows for journalists to tell better stories while using social media, we’ll fail. It has to be a human- centred process, or it will go away forever. 

This article first appeared as a chapter in the book "Finding the Truth Amongst the Fakes" 

(1) Tucker, Joshua (2013, June 1). A Breakout Role for Twitter? Extensive Use of Social Media in the Absence of Traditional Media by Turks in Turkish in Taksim Square. The Money Cage. Retrieved from: http://themonkeycage.org/2013/06/a-breakout-role-for-twitter-extensive-use-of-social-media-in-the-absence-of-traditional-media-by-turks-in-turkish-in-taksim-square-protests/

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