The Twitter Storm

Like so many of her peers in the days following October’s Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey reporter Jen Connic published an article to NJ.com covering the storm.

Sort of. Rather than a direct report on the damage, Connic’s piece was at its core a compilation of Twitter posts about Sandy’s effect on Atlantic City. Scouring the social media storm (pun intended), Connic chose some of the most gripping photographs city residents had posted with the hashtag #sandy. Pictures of a destroyed boardwalk and flooded roads were captioned with quips like “See ya! I’m making a run for it.” Connic’s story concluded with several Tweets reacting to Sandy’s impact in AC.

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Is what Connic is doing news? And on a larger scale, does Twitter undermine the goals of traditional news outlets?

Over at The Huffington Post, a video panel discussed Twitter’s role in delivering Sandy related news.

Senior HuffPost editor Danny Shea told the host that social media particularly benefits from the visual nature of storm coverage. Television networks can do little more than play loops of reporters in the field and slideshows of the destruction, Shea says, and the latter have totally saturated Twitter by the time CNN picks them up.

And so you really see that in these kinds of situations social media can almost take over completely from television or from print media.

But while Twitter executives benefit, the public may not, the panelists suggested. Several argued that because the type of citizen journalism that occurs on social media sites is not vetted, it is not as sound as traditional news outlets, and may provide its audience with misinformation.

Austrailian TV personality Josh Zepps offered an alternative way of looking at the phenomenon. Zepps says that live Twitter posts can actually perform an informatory function that a trained journalist can’t.

The reason why I think social media is so powerful in this is because the person who is taking it is usually actually there. We feel an emotional connection… So in that context it’s newsworthy not because it’s giving us any data or any information that we didn’t have previously, but because it’s a real human news story. And that’s something that a reporter on the scene is never going to be able to replicate.

What seems important, then, is that social media users at least develop an understanding of the variety and nature of the sources of their news. Zepps says that behind this human interest angle that Twitter offers, the world will always need journalists to sift through the sludge.

Journalism requires a curator, journalism requires a context maker. We need to figure out the world by having smart people understand it for us and process it for us. The sheer number of photos and tweets and memes that would be flying at us if we didn’t have newsmakers to put in context would be indecipherable.

Jen Connic is exactly the kind of curator that Zepps is describing. Her post synthesized a social media platform that was very overwhelming at the time. The users she featured were not chosen randomly – we have to assume that she spent a lot of time browsing the site for specific tweets and pictures, those that best reflected the overall tenor of the online response. It took the skills of a journalist to do so.

Twitter does not mean the downfall of legacy media. When Jersey was a state in crisis, Connic – the reporter – was more important than ever.

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