Three weeks ago, I did my first interview through email. Before then, I had always managed to go and talk with a person face to face, or at least over the phone. I pride myself in catching the small details, like how much of a slouch someone has or whether or not they have a gleam in their eye as they recount a specific story. As cliché as this sounds, my favourite aspect of journalism is having those conversations. You can tell so much from a person from a gleam; you can come to understand that your topic of conversation at that moment is important, and worth spending time with.
Then you sit down and write your article, and suddenly a picture of a person just comes to life. Maybe it doesn’t come across to readers, but I feel satisfied that I did my work.
With the interview I did three weeks ago, I didn’t get the details, and I felt like my story was flat. I found the article hard to write, even. I had a similar experience when I did my first phone interview, but at least I had a vocal reaction to describe. With written text, I felt like I had nothing but a carefully constructed and considered quote that lacked a voice. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have wound up with had the interview taken place over Facebook, or in a 140 character tweet.
It’s about more than conducting an interview through social media; it’s about using social media as a tool in general. I agree that as it’s there, it should be used. I don’t think that it should be used exclusively. As Stephanie Nolen said earlier this year, one of the most important things for journalists is actually going to your story. It always beats sitting behind a desk. I don’t think anyone can deny that it is possible to get all your facts and quotes from a computer. With speed taking such precedence, I fear the day desk work will become completely acceptable.
With so much information available online, how do you even know that you’re getting the right information? Or how do you know you’re getting the best information for your story? How are you ever sure who to attribute the information to, considering there is so much linking and posting? Are you supposed to take everything on the internet as public domain, as it technically is, or is there an ethical value in tracking down whoever posted a comment to ensure they stand behind what they say?
CBC has a section on the use of social media under the standards and practices section of their website. Their only guidelines are that they use social media to gather information by the same standards as any other tool. What more can you ask for, really? Other news organizations seem to have a similar policy, while others don’t mention social media at all. It doesn’t address the above questions directly though. Even Facebook, as we know, is public domain, despite it being a record of sometimes very personal information. How public should journalists take that information to be?
The BBC published a blog-like entry from one of their journalists about their standards. They have a separate section for news from their audience. Basically, anything that is found is posted separate from the more traditionally-gotten journalism. Stories found through social media are treated as citizen journalism. The BBC employs people to ensure that proper attribution is given and that the information or images are real and verifiable before they decide to use any of it as a source.
If I were ever to run a newsroom, I would run it with these standards in mind. To use Facebook and Twitter as your source seems wrong, especially when citizen journalism is given such weight, as seen with the recent protests. Cite the source as citizen journalism rather than a source for your own story. You can use social media as a lead, but verification is still key. Just as many papers won’t allow anonymous sources, I think there should be a strong policy for making a phone call. Ask for verification on a comment that you find, as through your source’s clarification, the quote will become yours.