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News Reporting Post Social Media and Riots

August 31, 2011

The London riots brought chaos to the city for a few nights, and at times the looting and violence spread faster than news sites could keep track of them, leaving many to turn to social media for their source of news. Often TV coverage became unreliable, and the BBC played looping footage of past events, whilst rioting in different areas was still taking place. Twitter became the fastest method for the public to find out what was happening around London, and to check if their area had been hit by the riots.  

The advantage social media has is its immediacy, something traditional news channels cannot compete with easily. Due to the fast paced nature of the riots, the speed of social media really came into play.  As Darcy Mitchell of The 7th Chamber put it, ‘for one night social media beat the sleeping giants of old style media to their own game: front line reporting in the heart of the action’. News websites tried to keep up with the riots, setting up live blogs to follow the action, but they still did not manage to keep up with the ever- unfolding events. At times even the traditional media relied on social media for the most up to date information on the riots.

Some media operations such as the Guardian and Sky News did set up live blogs, which helped to communicate the true scale of what was happening across London better than TV could. However, although these operations received large amounts of traffic, it was Twitter that benefited the most during the riots. Experian noted this, saying ‘The real-time sharing of information through Twitter has made the platform the ideal discussion platform to spread updates on major news events like the riots, and yesterday (8 August) was Twitter’s biggest ever spike in UK traffic online’.

More Fiction than Fact?

Interestingly, rather than seeing social media as a totally new way of spreading the news, it might be seen as a return to the old days before news corporations existed to report on major events. In those days news relied on word of mouth to be spread. Obviously, back then word of mouth did not have the capacity to spread as quickly it can through social media. However, there is a downside and a difference to this style of news telling. As social media consultant Matt Rhodes said:There’s a danger of thinking that because something is on Twitter, it’s true. People have some kind of trust in things that are published’. Whereas when news is spread verbally, the majority of people take it with a pinch of salt, news reported on Twitter or Facebook is taken more as fact.

At times rumours were circulated just as much, and perhaps even more than facts during the riots. As social psychologist, Aleks Krotoski, stated, ‘the problem with social media or the internet is how quickly this information can spread. Misinformation has been around for a really long time, but historically there have been gatekeepers to confirm things externally’.

Amongst rumors published via social media were claims the Camden Roundhouse had been set on fire; groups of hooded youths were heading towards Holloway, and even that rioters had attacked London Zoo, setting various animals free.

Yes, the use of Twitter and Facebook to spread news can sometimes create more fiction than fact; however, we are nevertheless seeing a fundamental change in how news is being reported. Before the age of social media, journalists acted as gatekeepers to information, where news corporations held the power to spreading news.

Now, social media has given power to the public to report news themselves.

This is not to say that traditional media is being replaced by social media.  Many journalists Tweet alongside the public, separating fact from rumors and providing more trustworthy accounts of the riots. Social media represents a new element to news reporting. We still need the traditional media to provide official accounts of events in the world, but what social media allows is for the public to add their own comments and analysis on events, arguably giving a more diverse voice and democratic way of news reporting. Social media allows those who are personally witnessing events unfolding to report what is happening.