Finding wisdom among the crowds

Back in the fall of 2007, a newspaper start-up where I worked as associate editor was just a few months into its existence. My bosses decided we needed a blog.

This wasn’t a blog with any specific purpose or strategy in mind. It was one of those “we have to have a blog because everyone else has one” kind of plans that litter the modern journalism landscape. The final product (the blog is pretty much defunct since I left the company in July) ended up finding an audience, but what to do with the many who logged in and commented was anyone’s guess.

Under the cloak of anonymity, strong opinions on local issues came out of the woodwork. It was the first online forum for many of these topics, and that unleashed a flood of uninformed and potentially libelous comments mixed with a scattering of new insights. We eventually tried to class things up with a more serious tone, only to see interest drop off.

This is a dilemma not unique to my publication or even community newspapers in general. As Skype chat my class had today with Ellyn Angelotti, interactive editor for the Poynter Institute, revealed the tricky balancing act journalists of all kinds have to make in weighing which of the thousands of new voices emerging from social media can add value to stories.

Angelotti explained a new kind of news cycle, one that’s shaped and even started by non-journalists tweeting or blogging about a breaking event. The first journalists on the scene will already be too late to break the news, so their role becomes that of a “curator,” sifting the reliable citizen content from the useless noise.

“We have access to so much more information than ever before, but with that comes greater responsibility,” she told the class. “There’s so much more information and more news for us. Masking sense of it all is what matters.”

One of the worst things you can do is ignore your audience and its feedback. Angelotti showcased several examples of quality journalism enhanced by information provided from readers. It’s harnessing that power (without getting sucked down in the dreck) that poses as one of the most important challenges facing journalists in an age where technology allows almost everyone to “broadcast” news.

In some ways it’s just like vetting the reliability of traditional sources, except on a much broader scale.

“My biggest pet peeve is pulling information off of social media without verifying it with the person herself,” Angelotti told us. “Let social networks be the first step and not the last step in the reporting process. Otherwise you threaten your own credibility.”

Check out Angelotti’s blog for more insights into how journalists can utilize the best aspects of social media.

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  1. “Angelotti explained a new kind of news cycle, one that’s shaped and even started by non-journalists tweeting or blogging about a breaking event. The first journalists on the scene will already be too late to break the news, so their role becomes that of a “curator,” sifting the reliable citizen content from the useless noise.”

    Two specific recent(ish) events come to mind: Capt. Sully’s dramatic safe jumbo-jet landing in the Hudson, and the death of pop icon Michael Jackson. I found out about both of those events through trending information on Twitter before traditional media had even set one foot outside the newsroom.

    Another consideration is the emerging role social media plays in coverage of events that traditional media *can’t* cover, such as the election turmoil in Iran. Is the coverage reliable? And, more importantly, is there a difference in the reliability of a small social media contingency breaking news (a small, focused viewpoint) versus a large movement (does the information become more reliable because it’s being transmitted, more or less the same, from a larger group of people).

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