World Views
3:28 pm
Wed June 12, 2013

How Crowdsourcing Changes The Nature Of News Coverage

Libyan rebels play on the body of a plane destroyed during heavy fighting at Tripoli International Airport on August 29, 2011.
Credit Ammar Abd Rabbo / Flickr
Listen to Suzette Grillot's conversation with NPR's Andy Carvin.

Real-time updates on social media are revolutionizing traditional journalism. By following Twitter feeds and other forms of social media, journalists like NPR Senior Strategist Andy Carvin now identify breaking news faster and do a better job following international stories.

“Crowdsourcing is basically just a fancy term for asking for help from the public,” Carvin says. “It's something journalists have always done at various points, but now social media has made it easy to engage people all over the world.”

Carvin calls himself an “informational DJ.” He has used crowdsourcing to cover stories ranging from the Newtown, Connecticut shooting to the Arab Spring.

In his book Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring, and a Journalism Revolution, Carvin describes the moment he realized the Tunisian revolution would affect the entire Arab world. Thousands of celebratory tweets followed the announcement that Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had stepped down, but one by Tunisian blogger Mohamed Marwen Meddah caught Carvin’s eye:

Credit CUNY Journalism Press

  As Carvin writes in Distant Witness:

I pictured a map of the region in my head. Egypt? The military would never let that happen. Libya? Yeah, right. Muammar Gaddafi would kill everyone without hesitation. And Syria? The thought was so terrifying that it wasn’t even worth contemplating. And yet @MMM’s words echoed in my mind for hours that night. Tag, you’re it.

Carvin continued to cover the movement as it grew throughout the region.

“When the first videos started coming out of Libya in early 2011, my Twitter followers helped me identify local dialects to make sure that it was actually stuff from somewhere in Libya,” Carvin says. “They would look for landmarks in the background and help me find them on Google Maps. They would even do things such as look at the weather forecast or where the moon was supposed to be in the sky and compare that to the footage to see if that matched up.” 

Carvin has also drawn attention to the work of citizens and journalists in the countries he’s reporting on.

“When it comes to social media, there are certain checks and balances that can exist if you have the right community of people working with you.” - NPR Senior Strategist for Social Media Andy Carvin

“In Libya, there was a young man named Mohammad Nabbous who managed to jury rig a slight connection for internet access in the city of Benghazi,” Carvin says. “And while Gaddafi's forces were essentially massacring protesters, he was able to keep this internet connection up and running while the opposition retook the city from Gaddafi and held onto it up until the point where NATO intervened.”

Over the course of that month, Carvin says Nabbous spent upwards of 20 hours a day using his live stream to document the situation and translate the information into multiple languages. In an interview with PBS, Carvin says that developing relationships with people like Nabbous is extremely important for journalists – even though he’s unlikely to meet them in person.

Carvin says crowdsourcing also has the potential to be more reliable than the 24-hour news cycle.

“When you've got that kind of non-stop coverage, there's a decent chance that you're going to make mistakes,” Carvin says. “When it comes to social media, there are certain checks and balances that can exist if you have the right community of people working with you.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the conflict in Syria

Syria started very slowly and somewhat quietly and then sort of increased at a drip, drip, drip kind of rate until suddenly we find ourselves in the situation where first five or ten people are getting killed a day, then 20 or 30, and now, you know, 100 to 200 people are killed a day. And it's just been a very different type of conflict because it's become this war of attrition that just keeps going and going and going. And many citizen journalists, if you will, have lost their lives trying to document what's going on in cities across Syria. And while I think their coverage has raised the profile of Syria around the world, I think one could also argue that it hasn't necessarily impacted the policy-making decisions that have been made about Syria.

On the use of the internet during the Arab Spring

In other places you had people like a woman in Bahrain who goes by the Twitter handle angryarabiya. She comes from a family of human rights activists and dissidents. And in the first month of the protests in Bahrain almost her entire immediate family was jailed. Her father's been sentenced to life in prison. Her husband was in jail. Her brother-in-law was in jail. And she's been in and out of jail at least half a dozen times over the last two years. And she's documented all of this through Twitter and, while you've been able to follow her story over Twitter, her opponents, who are within the government or just government supporters, also used social media to attack her and attack her cause. So you see the political fights playing out online the same way they do offline.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Andy Carvin, welcome to World Views.

ANDY CARVIN: Thanks for having me.

GRILLOT: So, I've been following your work and your position at NPR. I think it's interesting that you're listed as a strategist and you refer to yourself, actually as an "informational guru" on your Twitter bio.

CARVIN: Oh, no no no no no. I refer to myself, I jokingly call myself an informational DJ and I ask people not to call me a guru.

GRILLOT: That's right. An informational DJ. That's even more interesting, actually. So, could you tell us what does this mean and how does strategically processing information, especially information that you're gathering via the internet and social media, how is that a form of journalism?

CARVIN: Well, my actual title is Senior Strategist and it has always been intended to confound people somewhat simply because the type of work that I do has never existed in a news room prior to a few years ago. What I do is a combination of acting as a reporter and a producer and editor, but I also work with our production people and our business development people, so historically there wasn't a place in the news room hierarchy or an organizational chart where I would naturally fit. And so that's why I chose a title such as that. But the work that I actually do is I spend a lot of my time using social media to identify breaking news stories as well as to find stories of people who are experiencing amazing things around the world. A lot of my time over the last couple of years specifically focused on the Arab Spring, but I've also used these methods to cover earthquakes and political events and elections and the like.

GRILLOT: And shootings in the United States, even. You were covering Newtown.

CARVIN: Yeah, a few times I've had to do that as well.

GRILLOT: Yeah. So this method that you use, as you refer to it, has kind of come to be known as what you call "crowdsourcing," right? Can you explain what this means and how it is an effective way to get at the truth, if you will?

CARVIN: Well, crowdsourcing is basically just a fancy term for asking for help from the public. You know, it's something journalists have always done at various points, but now social media has made it easy to engage people all over the world when you're asking for help on different things you're trying to cover. So, for example, when the first videos started coming out of Libya in early 2011, my Twitter followers helped me identify local dialects to make sure that it was actually stuff from somewhere in Libya. They would look for landmarks in the background and help me find them on Google Maps. They would even do things such as look at the weather forecast or where the moon was supposed to be in the sky and compare that to the footage to see if that matched up. And so all these people would come out of the woodwork offering different skills and collectively we'd be able to work together to sort out what was true and what wasn't.

GRILLOT: Well, this interesting story that you're telling us now is obviously presented in your book, Distant Witness, and I read that book with much interest. Can you tell us a little bit more about your experience covering the revolutions during the Arab Spring and kind of what some of the most compelling stories were you faced and how it had an impact on the work that you were doing there.

CARVIN: Well, you know, it's interesting when you go into a story not realizing that you're actually going to be covering it and then all of a sudden finding yourself covering half a dozen revolutions simultaneously. There was lot going on at once, but there were definitely people who stood out at different times. In Libya, there was a young man named Mohammad Nabbous who managed to jury rig a slight connection for internet access in the city of Benghazi. And while Gaddafi's forces were essentially massacring protesters, he was able to keep this internet connection up and running while the opposition retook the city from Gaddafi and held onto it up until the point where NATO intervened. And, over the course of that month, he spent sometimes upwards of 20 a day using his live stream to document what was going on with countless volunteers translating what he was finding out into multiple languages. And then in other places you had people like a woman in Bahrain who goes by the Twitter handle angryarabiya. She comes from a family of human rights activists and dissidents. And in the first month of the protests in Bahrain almost her entire immediate family was jailed. Her father's been sentenced to life in prison. Her husband was in jail. Her brother-in-law was in jail. And she's been in and out of jail at least half a dozen times over the last two years. And she's documented all of this through Twitter and, while you've been able to follow her story over Twitter, her opponents, who are within the government or just government supporters, also used social media to attack her and attack her cause. So you see the political fights playing out online the same way they do offline.

GRILLOT: So as you're going about observing these things and watching from a distance, I mean you're looking at all of this, you're reading about all of these things on social media, and watching this play out and telling us, reporting back to us, those of us who are watching what you're watching, telling us the news... Actually one of our listeners asked an interesting question when we tweeted out that we were going to be interviewing you, and she wanted to know what your best practice is for crediting these participants. So when you're reading about all of these people who are tweeting these stories and then you re-tweet them and you're telling us what's going on, I mean, what's the best practice for that? How do you incorporate them into that story and, I guess, isolate them from the crowd source?

CARVIN: Well, ideally when a news event is breaking out it's always helpful to know at least one person on the ground. So, for example in the case of Egypt, I knew one particular blogger who had been active in protests online and offline for a number of years. So I went to his Twitter account and took a look at who were the very first people he decided to follow when he joined Twitter. And I then started following those people and did the same thing with them. Over a few days, I watched them talk among themselves and got a sense of who was related to whom, who was working together with whom, and what their roles were. And so as the protests really kicked into high gear, I had this pool of many dozens of people who were on the ground in Tahrir Square documenting what was going on. In other circumstances when you don't necessarily know someone who's on the ground, you can do things such as do geographic searches on Twitter so it only shows you results for people within a certain radius. So, for example, in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings in Connecticut I set up a Twitter search for a five-mile radius around Newtown and I saw tweets from people who were rushing to pick up their kids from school, or were rushing to the hospital because they were worried, or a relative had been shot, or even students who were in lock-down in their classrooms at other schools around the area. And all of this is coming in real time, and often in some stories you're able to get wind of it before it's being widely covered and when you do these types of searches you can look at the time stamps of what people have been tweeting and seeing if their time stamps precede anything the media has reported on it.

GRILLOT: Well, as you mentioned at the outset, this is obviously a new form of media. Your job doing things like this wasn't something that we used to do before this kind of method, this kind of social media. Let me ask you, is it possible at all that this kind of real-time news sharing as you refer to it, this real-time sharing of information via Twitter and other forms of social media, is it possible at all that this leads to certain snap judgments about what's going on rather than reasoned analysis? Or, in other words, is it a better form of journalism? Is it just a different form of journalism? What is kind of the final analysis about this method that you're using?

CARVIN: Well, I think it depends on what you want to compare it to. I think if you compare it to the 24-hour news cycle that exists within cable news, I would argue that there are actually sometimes more risks involved in that type of coverage because you're not allowed to have dead air. If you run out of things to say, you need to quickly find someone else to start talking. And when you've got that kind of non-stop coverage, there's a decent chance that you're going to make mistakes. Whereas, ironically, on Twitter if you want to slow down, you can slow things down. Or if you want to raise questions about something someone is reporting or have one of your Twitter followers challenge your own reporting, those interactions can happen right there in real-time at their own pace. And so I think when it comes to social media, there are certain checks and balances that can exist if you have the right community of people working with you and you don't have that problem of dead air that is always being filled with information during a live broadcast. And so it has its strengths and it has its challenges, but no more so than any other format.

GRILLOT: Well, one last thing for you, Andy. This is such an interesting phenomenon that we're experiencing today, although, you know, the fact that the internet has really changed the way in which not only we gather and share the news, but it also has an impact on movements. So as you've witnessed in the Arab Spring, in countries like Egypt and elsewhere, you know, social media really had an impact on the revolutions themselves. So have you found that that's actually the case in all cases? So, for example, like Syria. Is it making an impact in Syria differently than it's making an impact in Egypt? And what do you think might explain the difference if there is one?

CARVIN: Well, I think the key words there are the differences. Because every country has been different. In some cases it had to do with how readily available internet access is. So internet access is much more common in a place like Bahrain or Tunisia than it is, let's say, in Libya or in Yemen. And so you don't see as much online organizing going on in some of those countries. In the case of Egypt, you also had a lot of reporters who were based in Cairo. And there was, we had a bit of lead time because it happened just after the Tunisian revolution and there was a 10-day break between the two, and so it was possible to get a lot of reporters in place to cover it there. Whereas in Syria, Syria started very slowly and somewhat quietly and then sort of increased at a drip, drip, drip kind of rate until suddenly we find ourselves in the situation where first five or ten people are getting killed a day, then 20 or 30, and now, you know, 100 to 200 people are killed a day. And it's just been a very different type of conflict because it's become this war of attrition that just keeps going and going and going. And many citizen journalists, if you will, have lost their lives trying to document what's going on in cities across Syria. And while I think their coverage has raised the profile of Syria around the world, I think one could also argue that it hasn't necessarily impacted the policy-making decisions that have been made about Syria.

GRILLOT: Well, Andy Carvin, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your perspectives on this issue with us today on World Views.

CARVIN: Thanks, good talking to you.

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