When news broke two years ago, witnesses would tell their friends they saw it happen, some people might blog about it and the mainstream media would show up at some point and get the facts for a story to air at 10 or the next morning in print.
These days, anyone can and does report the news. I’m sure this isn’t a surprise to anyone: mobile phones and social media are turning just about anyone into a potential on-the-scene reporter.
So, with so many eyes and ears and easy ways to report what is being seen, the mainstream media is either no longer relevant or on the way out the door, right? Wrong.
There is still a role for journalists, and if those journalists are part of the conversation, people will look to them during breaking news events.
As the main voice behind the @statesman Twitter account, I’ve been in a position numerous times of being the person in the social media community who is able to verify a situation or correct some faulty reporting.
Here’s a good, recent example: A few days ago, there was an incident at a local bar in Austin’s entertainment district. Someone at the scene broke the news on Twitter before we heard about it at the paper. As you’ll see, we jumped in there 35 minutes later (Statesman tweets in bold). I was sitting at my computer at home but was in constant contact with our reporter who was on the scene and our Web production staff. I’ve included all of the Statesman tweets in this re-creation, but only a fraction of the other tweets from witnesses and others about the event):
8:42 p.m.: @adammorehead: http://twitpic.com/3c1x2 – Unnamed gun man on top of Apple Bar.
8:49 p.m.: @btunk: There’s a man with a gun on the roof of Apple Bar downtown?! Snipers everywhere and a lot of cops. What!?
9:09 p.m.: @Scottland: Apparently man is holding people hostage at gunpoint at the Apple Bar, reason for cops at 4th and Colorado
9:17 p.m.: @statesman: SWAT team at Apple Bar downtown — man with gun on roof (with link to a short blog item attributing info to the local police; link’s broken now)
9:18 p.m.: @vixos: 15 ppl held by a gunman at the Apple Bar
9:23 p.m.: Was just parked at 4th and Congress – scary as hell hearing a gunman on top of Apple Bar holding hostages…glad I made it home.
9:28 p.m. @MegaJustice: Hostages taken at The Apple Bar in downtown Austin. (with Twitpic of police barricading street)
9:39 p.m.: @statesman: RT @Adammorehead http://twitpic.com/3c1x2 – Unnamed gun man on top of Apple Bar.
9:40 p.m.: @statesman: Anyone else have pics/info from the Apple Bar area?
9:55 p.m.: @DtotheRyver: And found his way on roof of Bar. Police are pushing people out of line of fire. The man is said to have a gun.
10:03 p.m.: @statesman: Update: No confirmation on whether man at Apple Bar is armed. Nearby clubs not evacuated
10:04 p.m.: @statesman: RT @caniszczyk: View by Trulucks http://twitpic.com/3c64e
10:19 p.m.: @statesman: I see people on Twitter calling this a “hostage situation” at the Apple Bar. We have NOT been told that by police.
10:22 p.m.: @erinnthered: @statesman saying that hostage situation not confirmed, but people on the scene are saying otherwise.
10:23 p.m.: @statesman RT @catagator The police officer who was interviewed on Fox said the person was by himself. No hostages.
10:30 p.m.: @statesman: Our reporter was just told by police that the man at Apple Bar not a danger to anyone else; police not sure he has a gun.
10:30 p.m.: @MaliceBlackhart: @statesman Truly appreciate the responsible reporting. Thank you for informing us of what you have and HAVE NOT heard.
10:35 p.m.: @erintheread: A tale of two tweets: @misssparky someone just got shot; @statesman man not a danger to anyone else & not even sure he’s armed. Hmm
10:41 p.m.: @statesman @erinnthered That’s what police on the scene are saying.
10:47 p.m.: (I’m checking to confirm) RT @ydwright: It is over at the Apple Bar in #austin, he is coming down the ladder ..
11:01 p.m.: @statesman: The situation at the Apple Bar is over, our reporter confirms.
11:05 p.m.: @rmendoza86: @statesman damn twitter gives a whole new realm of “on the scene reporting”
Several of my tweets were retweeted multiple times, and once we confirmed what was actually happening, the rumors stopped flying (or at least slowed down). This is not meant to embarrass anyone – tweets from the public are what often alert us to news event, and they many times have been accurate and excellent reports. But in a case like this one, having a journalist who has access to the police and the habit of verifying information is valuable. It did turn out that the guy did not have a gun, and police now say he was never in danger of harming himself or others.
Thanks to budurl.com, I know that we received 1,342 page views to our blog post on the incident from Twitter that night.
People still will turn to the mainstream media to explain what is really happening, whether we’re talking about breaking police news or government fraud. But it’s up to journalists to be in a position where they can be heard – and can listen. If we weren’t deeply involved on Twitter before this incident, we would have been completely irrelevant to these people in this case. Instead, we had an important role to play.
Robert Quigley, the Internet editor at the Austin American-Statesman, writes a media blog with Daniel Honigman at http://oldmedianewtricks.com.