Smartphone and social media use is widespread. This means that, every time there is an event that may be of interest to a newsroom (company closures, storms and floods, accidents, acts of terrorism), it is highly likely that there are witnesses who will have taken photos or shot videos or written about what they saw or experienced on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. Using the right methods, you can quickly find first-hand sources online – for interviews and to gather information to help you and your newsroom solve a puzzle, understand a course of events or put an emergency in the right context.
In October 2013, a large number of US media sources reported shots being fired on Capitol Hill in Washington. The reporting included several photos taken by private individuals that were used and published by newsrooms in various ways, including this one by Marc Schloss, posted to his Twitter account @marcschloss:
No joke on Capitol Hill as Cops are running with machine guns as reports of shots being fired at Capitol pic.twitter.com/vdjAKkLP4y
Just as in other contexts, photos, videos and other information that you find on social media need to be processed before you can use them in your reporting. You may need to double-check facts against several sources or quite simply find out whether the source is who they say they are, and make sure that they are not lying or disseminating someone else’s material, or material from an entirely different event or time (more on this under Source criticism).
You also need the explicit permission of the person who took the photo to use it in your journalism. In this case, for example, NBC4’s editors in Washington asked the question directly on Twitter:
Twitter and Instagram are often lightning fast for newsworthy events, but in recent years Instagram has assumed the role of the platform of choice for those who want to share live images and eyewitness accounts of a course of events in progress.
Both platforms have search functions that make it possible to search on the location of the event (provided that the person who shared the post has location services enabled). If two trams collide on Drottningtorget in Gothenburg, you are very likely to be able to find photos if you search on the location (and the surrounding area) on Instagram.
Parallel hashtags are often used for major news events (hashtags are currently used more on Instagram than on Twitter), with one of them eventually becoming dominant.
During the big forest fire in Västmanland in August 2014, for example, #salabranden was used by a large number of Twitter and Instagram users in the area to write about the fire and post photos from the area (which P4 Västmanland (local radio station, based in Västerås) collected and used on sverigesradio.se).
TweetDeck allows you to create one or more search columns for the hashtags you discover, while on Instagram you have to do manual searches. But remember that the first posts about an event are often written without a hashtag. In that case, it may be more relevant to search based on a number of key words, separately or in combination, such as place names and words describing the event.
Always ask for permission to use photos and videos in news reporting. And always be thorough, and check that the source and the material are genuine before you publish what you find on social media (see Source criticism).
A newsroom can also use social media for routine coverage, in parallel with traditional editorial procedures such as checking the local paper or calling the local police a few times every working day. Routine coverage of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram works in the same way. Some time may pass between ideas for news, but searching regularly can reduce the risk of missing something.
Routine coverage may involve making lists of accounts for local politicians, sports celebrities, government agencies and corporations, along with other people who are of interest to the newsroom. It is also useful to create procedures for searching for place or company names. In TweetDeck, it is easy to set up a number of search columns, while manual searches are required for Facebook and Instagram. The news that pea producer Findus was closing down its operations in Bjuv, Skåne, was announced in March 2016. Shortly after the news broke, the twittersphere was full of outraged comments by both politicians and local residents. A routine search on Bjuv and/or Findus would have helped local departments find people to call for comments or further information in a few minutes.
In TweetDeck, you can also filter your search columns by date, several words (the combination of Findus AND Bjuv, or separately in the same column using Findus OR Bjuv) and language. Some time after the closure was announced, for example, photos of trade unions in Asia showing their solidarity with the Findus workers in Sweden were posted on Twitter with captions in English.
Google image search. This permits you to search for images to see whether an image is stolen or where it first appeared. Price: Free
TinEye. A more user-friendly tool than Google image search for searching for images. You can easily sort by date, size, etc. Desktop versus smartphone: Also works on a smartphone but is a little clumsier because of the smaller screen size. Price: Free
Jeffrey’s Image Metadata Viewer. A site that can (often) retrieve all the metadata from an image, for example when it was taken, where it was taken, and whether it has been edited, for example, in Photoshop. Different images reveal different volumes of information: sometimes a great deal, sometimes nothing at all. Desktop versus smartphone: Is difficult to use on a smartphone. Price: Free
Wayback Machine. A site that has saved a large number of websites since 1996, where you can see exact copies of sites that have been edited or removed. Desktop versus smartphone: The site works on a smartphone (adapts), but is easier to use on a desktop. Price: Free