Harnessing the power of social networks for journalism

The BBC World Service recently told its reporters to embrace social media, or leave, the clear sign that social media are central to the work of journalism.

BBC World Service Director Peter Horrocks explains how social media (read: all new forms of communication, including texting) can lead to strong reportage:

“Classic examples are situations where it is hard to report from. In northern Nigeria, for example, we are using mobile phones which we provided to villages. In each village there is one person who is known as ‘the keeper of the mobile’. This was a way we learnt about a government confrontation with a village about land rights. We looked into that story, and used BBC journalistic rigours to covered that story. Here we simply use social media applying what always has made the BBC World Service strong: holding governments accountable using this news technique. The ‘how’ is changing, and not so much the ‘what’.”

That’s an inspiring example, but doesn’t necessarily point to a wholesale change in journalistic practice (social media was mentioned only once in BBC’s 2009 editorial guidelines, according to The Guardian).

For smart networked journalism to spread, journalists need to completely rethink their default use of novel communications tools and social networks as simply new distribution channels or more efficient ways to find sources and get quotes.

This is like using Niagara Falls to fill a jug of water. In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, John Hagel III and John Seely Brown suggest we reconsider traditional networking practices–advice that’s relevant for journalists struggling to come to terms with the explosion in networking and information-sharing technology.

“In the classical networking approach, the game is about presenting yourself in the most favorable light possible while flattering the other person into giving you their contact information. This approach quickly degenerates into a manipulative exchange where the real identities of both parties rapidly recede into the background, replaced by carefully staged presentations of an artificial self. These staged interactions rarely build trust. In fact, they usually have the opposite effect, putting both parties on guard and reinforcing wariness and very selective disclosure.”

Put another way, stop schmoozing and start listening. The corollary for journalists: Stop source-hunting and start discovering.

To this point, here are a few recent examples of Facebook posts by news organization seeking sources for stories:

“Looking to interview people in the greater DC/MD/VA area who have switched from a national bank to a local community bank. If this applies to you and you’d like to share your story, please tell us about it in the comments. Thanks!”

“Looking to interview a married couple in which the wife has more education and a higher income than her husband. If you are both willing to talk about how it affects the dynamics of your marriage, please tell us a bit about yourself. Ideally, we are seeking couples ages 30-44.”

These are the sort of garden variety journalistic queries that, prior to social media, were passed around newsrooms (including ours) with a subject line that began: “Does anybody know somebody who …?”

The subtext: We already know what the story is and only need a few characters from central casting. Note the absence of a question mark in both of those requests. This is not a search for knowledge. It’s a source hunt.

The pressure to produce forces journalists to quickly narrow their objectives. But if we can resist for a moment the drumbeat of looming deadlines and admit that we don’t know what the story is (or even what the right question is), then we’re closer to tapping the true potential of networks and social media: to answer questions and satisfy curiosity.

... if we can resist for a moment the drumbeat of looming deadlines and admit that we don't know what the story is (or even what the right question is), then we're closer to tapping the true potential of networks and social media: to answer questions and satisfy curiosity.

If you approach social media to explore and discover, you’ll seek out experiences that enable substantive, quality exchanges and active listening. You might find that your questions missed the mark, and that there were far more interesting stories you hadn’t thought to consider. There’s great humility in realizing that not only do you not know the right answer, you might not even know the right question.

Much as I use and value Twitter and Facebook for journalism, there’s a room for more and better tools and experiences that enable knowledge-sharing. As Hagel and Seely Brown put it, “In this world, it is not who you know, but what you learn from, and with, who you know.” New tools and a shift in our approach to networking will open up vast and largely untapped reservoirs of tacit knowledge and information–helping us understand how things really work.

Here’s a recent example that might help highlight the difference. To mark the return of thousands of National Guard soldiers, the MPR newsroom planned a series on the challenges of reintegration, and assigned reporters to formulate story pitches. The idea generation and pitch process tends to be a solitary exercise: lone reporter hunts for leads and info, sketches out a story idea, pitches it to the editor and seeks approval. The reporter gathers enough information to gauge the viability and feasibility of the story — but the bulk of the reporting begins after the editor accepts the pitch.

The hitch is that, once the pitch has been accepted, the reporting process can easily become an exercise in source-finding and quote harvesting. This can and often does yield good journalism. But it might not get at underlying and possibly critical issues, or build lasting trust with sources.

In this particular case, our Public Insight team was activated from the outset to seek insights from sources in the Public Insight Network and beyond to address the question: What happens when our troops come home?

Within a few days, we heard from several people who work with veterans in rural areas. They told our Public Insight analyst that the VA had stopped contracting with rural service providers, opting instead to centralize care at their facilities, forcing rural veterans to drive further to get care they might be reluctant to seek out in the first place. That led to this story from MPR News reporter Tom Robertson about the challenge vets face getting care in rural areas.

We could have uncovered that story by a more traditional approach to networking and reporting. But we may not have. What’s clear is that, because we were genuinely open, networking online became an act of exploration and learning, not of searching and finding. It’s a subtle but profound difference.

Andrew Haeg is Public Insight Editor at American Public Media and was a 2008-2009 a Knight Fellow at Stanford University. In 2003, Haeg co-founded Public Insight Journalism, an online initiative which systematically incorporates the knowledge and insights of the audience into daily public radio journalism.