Is It Journalism, or Is It Social Media?

Social media and journalism influencers: (l-r) Mark Briggs, Mandy Jenkins, Evonne Benedict

Social media and journalism influencers:
(l-r) Mark Briggs, Mandy Jenkins, Evonne Benedict

One of the great things about South by Southwest Interactive is the opportunity to attend less formal sessions and meet people with similar concerns and interests, and hear from people who’ve put some serious time in the trenches. Such was a conversation with Seattle’s King 5 Broadcasting Company Social Media  Director Mark Briggs, and Mandy Jenkins, Interactives Editor for DigitalFirst Media.

I arrived knowing that the conversation would probably weave through the issues of corporate control versus social media agility, and implications that agility holds for journalistic standards. I hoped that Briggs and Jenkins would be able to offer some expert perspective, and I wasn’t disappointed. Bonus takeaways came from the experience of other attendees, which appear later in this article.

The conversation began with some insights on the demands placed on today’s journalists by the here-and-now media environment that has naturally developed from the ubiquitous nature of social media. Mark Briggs began by describing recent times in news reporting when journalists were pushed to tie up the day with major stories. But with so many channels available for information, deadlines are many and frequent.  “Now it’s minute by minute,” said Briggs.

He went on to describe a defining journalistic dilemma of our time:  with information about any event moving in at warp speed, and the pressure to be first with breaking stories, verification and vetting are even more necessary than ever but at the same time more challenging.

Mandy Jenkins illustrated the point by recalling an event that had occurred at the Discovery Channel when a shooting took place there last month. “People were locked down in offices in and around the scene,” she reported.  “We were able to get comprehensive coverage that wouldn’t have been possible without social media.”

Verification, she added, was possible because there were a large number of reports coming in that consistently described the same event and that information meshed with police reports.  “There’s a sweet spot between the immediacy of social media and journalism,” she said.

When asked about how news organizations could control the message and restrict social media, both Jenkins and Briggs were adamant that for outlets wanting to retain audience, the choice was clear. “You can’t afford to let someone else take over your branding,” stressed Jenkins. “If you don’t reach your readers on your platform, someone else will.”

To concerns about the perceived gap between social media and journalistic standards, Briggs had a clear answer: use the highest journalistic standards on social media, and social media will come to be associated with those same high standards.

King 5 Social Media manager Evonne Benedict was in the audience when a participant asked about guidelines and tools for social media managers. “It’s about breaking down silos,” explained Bennedict. “It’s a job that evolves every day.” Briggs, who is Bennedict’s boss at King 5, described how Bennedict had created the position herself through her own enthusiastic use of social media and innovative use of platforms to tell the story.

Jenkins added that she has held this same title in a variety of organizations, but that the job had been different in every location. Furthermore, it’s a demanding job, she told the audience, often with long hours and fuzzy boundaries.

A concern about today’s customer-centric news platforms was aired. Shouldn’t news organizations insist on telling the stories that the audience needs to hear be told as well as the stories they want to hear? Jenkins and Briggs were adamant that part of telling important stories is telling the readership how these issues affect them. This means using classic journalistic ethics, and increasingly means using the newest tools to present data in easily-understood ways. Jenkins advocates learning coding skills for journalists entering the profession and experienced reporters alike.

Other new tools for news professionals were discussed, such as Sourcesleuth for identifying sources and  Chartbeat, for identifying sources of tweets. Online platforms such as Storify and The Social Sponge provide places for reporters to establish a social media presence for their stories.

Briggs and Jenkins espoused a cautious approach to outlets embracing too many new social media platforms, or using platforms in inappropriate ways.  “We have to do our homework first – it irks an audience to see the inappropriate use of the platform that clearly says the organization doesn’t have any idea of how to use it.  You wouldn’t, for example, post grim accident scene pictures on Pinterest,” said Jenkins.

The final message was that the need for standards and ethics hasn’t changed, and that using new tools is a necessary skill, albeit one that is rapidly evolving. Both panelists agreed that telling and curating stories still comes down to human relationships.

Norwegian journalist Øyvind Solstad, head of social media and user involvement, agreed. He offered a different model from standard practices in North American journalism.  “US reporters seem to hold stories close until they’re ready to publish,” he remarked.  “But in Norway, stories are published as they progress, and at every stage the writer asks the audience for comments and information, so that the story grows and evolves.”  This additional input, Solstad said, allows the reporter to enlist many information sources and present a complete picture. “We should learn from you,” Jenkins replied. Solstad was agreeable. “It is a conversation, after all.”

Mark Briggs and Evonne Benedict are the Social Media director and manager, respectively, at King 5 Broadcasting in Seattle.  Mandy Jenkins is Interactives Editor at digitalfirst Media and a faculty member in the graduate program in journalism at the University of Georgetown.

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