The rich supply of text, video, audio and photo updates which surface on social media, particularly in breaking news situations, also means newsrooms are faced with an additional channel of communication requiring effective verification, where possible, at speed.
And so, in a panel session at a BBC social media conference today, online journalism experts from ITV News, Channel 4 News and the BBC discussed some of the considerations when using social media to research or share news updates, as well as lessons from their own experiences.
Here are eight key takeaways from the discussion, which featured Anna Doble, head of online at Channel 4 News, Tim Gatt, digital output editor at ITV News and Chris Hamilton, social media editor for BBC News.
1. Use social to find original angles, or entirely new stories
Of course social media is a powerful tool when it comes to the initial confirmation of breaking news events, and news outlets have an important role to play in verifying information and sharing essential information with their social media communities.
But social media platforms can also be a valuable way for news outlets to uncover stories not being covered by the masses, or at least open doors to new angles and interesting contacts to develop a story further.
Channel 4 News's Anna Doble said that the broadcaster's "raison d'être is not breaking news", instead it aims to offer deeper "analysis" or original outlooks on stories, or even cover those stories "no one is touching at all".
And social media can help fuel this effort. "In social media terms, we try to build a story from social media rather than top down," Doble said.
This can occur in the aftermath of a breaking news event, where social media can highlight opportunities for original follow-ups, or can originate entirely from social media itself.
One example of the latter, referred to by Doble, was Channel 4 News's recent news pop-up project, which saw a team travel across the country and invite viewers to tell the broadcaster what stories from their local communities they felt needed to be told.
Doble described it as a "Radio 1 road-show for the modern day age".
Similarly she said its NoGoBritain project, which put a spotlight on travelling around London with a disability, is the "best example of us succeeding" in terms of using social media to find new stories.
"People tweeted and Facebooked and YouTubed themselves getting on trains, buses for months", she said. Not only was there the potential for individual tales to be turned into leads for local centres, but collectively it also "made a very good story for us", she said.
"Reverse it around, look at social and see where you can find niche audiences and work from the roots up," she advised.
2. Build social into journalists' mindsets
Another area looked at was the shift in thinking when it comes to online reporting, and social media in particular.
ITV News's Tim Gatt said the introduction of the redesigned broadcaster's news website "changed the way our journalists think about finding news".
"They are not waiting for that bulletin, not having to wait for someone else to break it."
The online team is now also an "integral part of the newsroom", he said, outlining the liaison with other newsdesk editors, and sharing of information between different desks.
"It fundamentally changed the way ITV News covers breaking news," he added.
Doble added that social media is now "built into everybody's thinking", at Channel 4 News.
"Now I don't have anyone saying 'I don't want to be on Twitter'", she added, "so that's a success".
When asked later in the session about where the panel saw this area in three years time, Doble said that she expects the distinction between producers working on different output, for example a television producer and online producer, to have disappeared.
"We will all be multimedia journalists," she said, adding that "even the word multimedia will seem old-fashioned".
3. Think about where online and social sits in the newsroom
As well as the mindset, part of the integration of digital and traditional has been about newsroom architecture, and looking at where those working specifically online, or in social media, for example, are located in the newsroom.
At the BBC's new offices in Broadcasting House, Chris Hamilton described the layout, which sees the newsdesks in the centre, surrounded by "spokes" of the output operation.
He added that social media journalists have a "live and social position" on the news desk, and as such can "make sure the newsgathering operation is across what UGC are looking for and finding".
In the other direction, they can also ensure "UGC is aware of what stories are starting to break through traditional means".
Hamilton recently discussed the BBC newsroom layout at Journalism.co.uk's news:rewired conference.
4. Focus on traditional journalism skills when verifying online content
One question for the panel focused on how content is verified on social media. For more detail on specific tools journalists can use to investigative digital content or other claims made online, see this Journalism.co.uk how-to guide.
The first step should always be to "find the person" who is sharing the content or making a claim, Hamilton said.
"If you can't do that, that's when you go down the track of more technical stuff," he said, adding that ensuring "accuracy is the absolute number one".
5. Consider 'duty of care' to social media users
A question asked by James Ball, data editor of the Guardian, who had spoken earlier in the conference, was about how to approach people on social media in the event that they have shared content of interest to a news outlet.
There have been, as Ball highlighted, many examples were someone has witnessed an event and shared a tweet or photo relating to what they experienced, which is then followed by messages from news outlet staff asking for permission to publish the content, or speak to them more about the incident.
Hamilton said the public nature of platforms like Twitter means "social media is exposing our workings", and that there have been examples of "clunky and embarrassing approaches".
The BBC has certain "protocols", he said, in terms of how to reach out to people. But, he added, "it's a difficult balancing act" and one which should be considered in the "context" of the story or situation.
He added that "duty of care" is also a key consideration. In particular, journalists need to be careful to make sure their interactions with an individual will not cause them to be placed in any danger, he said.
This is something Journalism.co.uk has covered previously, in relation to the Associated Press and its placement of ethics and safety at the heart of its approach.
Gatt added that when news outlets actively invite viewers to send in content, they also need to be careful that they are "not putting someone in danger by saying 'oh send some pictures please'."
6. Preparing for live coverage on social media
Another question asked of the panel was for best practice advice on delivering live coverage on social media.
Hamilton highlighted the importance of preparation, such as by checking certain spellings or hashtags in advance. But he also stressed the risks to consider if preparing tweets in advance, such as when covering the result of a court case.
Doble added that whenever possible, having a colleague quickly check a tweet containing big breaking news is worthwhile.
And do not feel constrained to 140 characters, she added. If needs be, cut a long tweet into more than one, with clear indications on which part of the update each tweet is e.g. 1/2 and 2/2 for a two-part tweet. This is better than losing necessary context but cutting out information to appeal to a character-count, she said.
7. Looking beyond Twitter
Of course, it is not all about Twitter. In fact Channel 4 News's Google+ page – which at the time of writing has more than 220,000 followers – records "the most traffic in terms of conversation", Doble said.
But it is useful to consider the varying approaches which could work best on different platforms.
ITV News, for example, is "very careful in what we put on Facebook", Gatt said, as they do not "have time to check and delete comments that could get us in trouble".
But news outlets "shouldn't just see Twitter as the one place for selling our content".
Doble said visual content is most effective on Facebook "in terms of driving traffic", and the recent introduction of hashtags is helping to "open" conversations on the platform. In time Doble said this will help journalists "newsgather more effectively" on the network.
Hamilton added that breaking news has "got to be really big for people to want to share it" on Facebook, but he similarly added that developments in terms of hashtags, APIs and search "could see Facebook becoming more of a player in a breaking news context".
8. When to tweet, and when to hold back for flagship product
Outside of big breaking news events, one question journalists have is when to tweet stories, and when to reserve them for a printed newspaper, or TV bulletin.
Doble warned against this attitude, adding that we "should all be thinking as one", and "should work together to put out the best possible content as soon as you can".
Gatt said that he would argue that there is still a need in some cases to "hold back", to avoid sharing leads with the competition.
Doble added that there was perhaps the possibility to still "give something away", without jeopardising a story.
This might be achieved through "clipping" or offering a "preview", Hamilton said. "There is still space," he said, albeit likely declining, he added, "for brand programmes to still hold stories or elements of stories back".
Free daily newsletter
- How publishers can get their community back from social media
- Highlight your expertise and be there to listen: The dos and don'ts of building trust with readers on Facebook
- Lead Stories is debunking misinformation starting to trend on social media
- The 10 steps of Correio's digital transformation
- With a new app and Facebook Messenger bot, Al Jazeera Media Network is expanding into digital audio