in Just Journalism

How journalists could use social media to enable storytellers

Underheard in New York: Twitter for the Homeless

Underheard in New York hands the storytelling tools over to the sources and is helping to amplify their experiences to a wide audience.

I just read with interest Zachary Sniderman’s Mashable post about homeless people in New York City tweeting via an initiative called Underheard in New York, a neat idea brought to life by three interns at BBH New York.

It got me thinking about how journalists and news organizations use social media in their storytelling: They tend to keep the keys.

What I mean by this is that journalists using social media usually treat it as a tool to spread and source their stories. But ultimately, they don’t hand any level of access—the keys,  so to speak—over to their sources.

For example, in the same vein as Underheard in NY, a reporter covering homelessness could distribute to their primary sources cheap prepaid cellphones and teach them how to tweet their story. Suddenly, the source has been given the platform and knowledge to share their own experiences. These tweets could be curated in a way that gives them more exposure and helps the storytellers gain a following.

To take it one step further—what if a reporter were to give a source in a human interest or community-oriented series the keys to their Twitter account for a day? Or access to a blog on their news website?

I know, it’s risky; I can hear my old journalism professors groaning with concern. Journalists, so used to being the ones who carefully craft a story to be fair and informative, want to be the gatekeepers.

But wouldn’t access to a Twitter account, a camera or a blog be an excellent contribution to the rest of a news package (say an in-depth story with a video and photos), not to mention drive reader engagement to new levels?

Ultimately, news media are always trying to use social media to drive more traffic and build a wider reach (aka to try to crawl out of the red into the black).

With careful discretion, giving the keys to sources would be a more meaningful way to tell a story and make an impact in the lives of readers and storytellers.

I can think of at least one series in which my alma mater Seattle University was key in producing that while innovative, could have benefited from this approach.

I’d love to hear of any recent examples of a reporter or news outlet taking such an open social media approach, truly becoming storytelling enablers.

P.S. I can’t resist mentioning that Underheard in New York’s website is powered by WordPress.

Comments (1)

  1. Great post. Funny, to me, everything you wrote is a no-brainer. But, there is no doubt that there are many journalists that need to read this post. Many of them feel intimidated ( or feel superior to) by Web 2.0 and bloggers. I would know, as I deal with them daily.

    By no means are all journalists acting this way. There are many journalists that are taking full advantage of all the tools Web 2.0 offers them to better their craft and connect with their audience. Honestly, I think we are just scratching the surface. The integration of the semantic web, or Web 3.0 as some call it, will take the tools that you detailed in those post to another level. It will streamline the processes for effective journalism and outreach of message. Can't wait.