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Social media sites can be a goldmine for journalists searching for breaking news, as the sheer amount of information being uploaded to the internet every second of every day is monumental.

So the problem for journalists is how to make sense of this barrage of data and select what is important or relevant to them.

Claire Wardle, director of news services at Storyful, and Emma Meese, media and training development manager at Cardiff School of Journalism, shared their tips for how to make the most out of social media at the Cardiff Journalism Conference on Wednesday (16 January).

The volume of information uploaded to the web was specifically highlighted by Wardle, who said that on average 72 hours of YouTube content is uploaded every minute.

Get talking

In much the same way as journalists traditionally develop a contact book and engage in discussion within their community, it is important to interact as much as possible with different communities across social media platforms.

Wardle stressed the importance of getting that conversation started, saying that "at Storyful we have a constant Google hangout running, and we are always collaborating and talking".

She also identified a constraint on professional journalists, whose ability to do 'shoe-leather' reporting she said is being squeezed.

"The reality of newsrooms is that journalists can almost never leave the office. They are increasingly using social networks for much of their news gathering, and there is so much information out there that people are turning to social networks for their breaking news.

"Every news event creates a community. But if you do not know those communities how do you know who to trust and who not to trust?"

Meese echoed the importance of discourse, particularly being a good listener.

"Social media is more powerful as a listening tool. People are having conversations every second of every day. In whatever area you are interested in people are having these conversations, it is about finding the right ones available to you."

Use searches and Twitter lists

Running searches on Twitter, using RSS feeds and potentially the new Facebook Graph Search can narrow down the information coming in to you and pinpoint exactly where it is coming from.

Wardle pointed out that these techniques can help identify a community that she may already be engaged with.

"Using tweet lists is very useful because everyone on that list has to be in a certain area. That way we can trust the content straight away.

"We can find out the average number of tweets per area, so if the numbers go up at certain times we can investigate that. For example, within 90 seconds of the earthquake hitting Nicaragua we saw an increase in tweets."

Meese also used this method to find the one source she most wanted to talk to during the London riots in 2011.

"As most tweets are geo-tagged, they will give you the location of where it came from. I used this to locate 21 Welsh speakers in London around the time of the riots, because I was working for BBC Cymru Wales at the time. One in particular in Ealing was giving a blow-by-blow account of what was happening outside his front door.

"His car had been blown up on the street and he and his wife had barricaded themselves in. He was tweeting what he was seeing and what was happening. I could then go on Google Maps and verify that he was where he said he was.

"Anyone can do this and find out if people can see what they say they can see. By using these sorts of searches you are doing what traditionally you would do with your contact book. It has changed the quality of contributors and the variety of people we can find."

Verification is essential

So, what can you do with user-generated-content found via social media? One dilemma which news organisations often find themselves in is whether or not to trust the information they are receiving, and how quickly they should publish it. The consensus is that it is better to be cautious, but there are ways to try and check if the content is genuine.

"There was one video we found which appeared to be an eagle swooping down and stealing someone’s baby," Wardle said.

"We later found out that both the bird and baby were fake, and had been created by a group of visual arts students. We discovered this by looking at the shadow of the bird on the ground and discovering it didn’t move, having been added on top later.

"The problem for newsrooms is how to do those checks."

Meese urged restraint, as once the information has been published it cannot be reversed.

“The thing to remember is that it is better to be right than to be first. There is nothing worse than putting information out there and getting it wrong."

Wardle also highlighted the fact that fragmentation in the media means many journalists are doing the same job at the same time.

"200 journalists from different newsrooms may be trying to verify the same user-generated-content at the same time. The question is, can it be co-ordinated to be useful to everyone?"

Lastly, Meese encouraged smaller news sites to be proactive with user-generated-content.

"Once you have got your content do not think that if you build it they will come. You have to share it and spread it on. Large organisations will in the future be coming to hyperlocal sites for that content because they know them and can trust them."

For more on verification see this how-to guide by Journalism.co.uk.

You can also hear more from Claire Wardle below on key current and emerging tools for journalists using social media for news gathering.

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