Social networks

Sessions at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia last week covered a number of different aspects of social media and journalism, from dealing with user-generated content in breaking news situations to building engaged communities.

And in a panel discussion on Saturday (27 April) the subject of social media took centre stage – this time focusing on how journalists and news outlets can be 'more thoughtful' in using social.

Opening the panel, Columbia Journalism Review's Justin Peters commented on the ongoing appearance of social media panels at journalism conferences, which he said highlights that the industry is "still unsure" when it comes to best practice.

So, below are a collection of five interesting tips and takeaways shared by some of the panel members, including social media editor of the Associated Press Eric Carvin, community editor at the Economist Mark Johnson, and social media trainer and consultant Sue Llewellyn. (Due to technical problems we were unable to access translation for Italian journalist and panel member Massimo Mantellini)

1. Transfer your brand to social

The Economist's Mark Johnson addressed the idea of how traditional publishers can carry their brand onto social media in a way users will appreciate.

Using the Economist as an example, he said "in many ways the Economist doesn't seem like a good fit for social media".

Journalists at the Economist do not have bylines in the magazine. "We're not anonymous, its not MI6," he said, "but we don't really promote individual journalists".

"All that adds up to interesting challenge," he said, one the team has risen to, gathering more than 3 million followers to the Economist's main Twitter account.

The Economist has thrived on social because it is "distinctive", Johnson argued.

"There's already a sense that people who are readers of the Economist are already part of a community," he said. "People who are part of this reader community are very proud of it."

Therefore, he advised news outlets to "find out what it is people love about them, then work out how to convert that onto social networks". And listen to what your users want from you on social, rather than following more generic advice, he urged.

For example, Johnson said when it comes to the main Economist Twitter account, to a great extent, its output is "publishing links to what we have written".

"A lot of this is because we've found that's what people want from it", he explained. And when the Economist has tried to do things differently with the "main brand" account, it receives complaints.

So instead, the Economist uses "sub-brands" on Twitter to engage with the community in more innovative ways.

The AP's Carvin also added that "we're not going to change who we are as a news organisation". Instead, it is about using social media "to further the goals of what we want to do as a news organisation".

2. Stay focused on your role as a journalist

Carvin highlighted that the "number one goal to using social is to succeed as a journalist".

He explained that were he approached by someone new to social who said 'I don't want to tweet links all day', his response would be to tell them not to.

Instead use your presence on Twitter to find stories, witnesses and "the person who's going to get your next story".

"The most important reason to be active on these platforms is to hopefully yield stories," he said. That is what makes a journalist "successful on social".

3. Maintain fundamental journalism principles

When it comes to what journalists are putting out on social media, Carvin stressed the need for news outlets "to re-establish a commitment to accuracy and standards on what we share on social".

Recent breaking news events, such as the Boston marathon bombing, have served to again highlight the importance of care and restraint in sharing information.

Carvin added that many news outlets "view social media as a softer platform than the places they usually publish content", and as a result can sometimes apply "different standards".

Sue Llewellyn reinforced this point, adding that "on social media you have the right to remain silent", and that "often you are right to remain silent".

"Everything you put out is permanent", she reminded journalists.

And when mistakes are made on social media, Carvin said transparency is key. "You need to follow up with something else on the same platform to say you got it wrong."

4. Safety is paramount

For those either working as journalists in dangerous situations, or accessing information via social media from citizens and others who find themselves in such situations, the safety of journalists and sources must remain paramount, Carvin said.

At AP he said there have been discussions about the safety and security of people they are gathering information from via social media.

"We find ourselves connecting with members of the public who are witnessing something and we're interested to talk to them, getting information from them," he explained, but highlighted the need for journalists to keep safety in mind.

As a result he produced "a set of guidelines on how to approach people" in such circumstances for AP staff. "The bottom line is first of all deciding when it's even appropriate to do so".

He added: "If someone's in a dangerous situation... the safest thing to do is wait before we start asking questions about where they were. We never ask anybody to gather content in a dangerous situation."

Similarly, news outlets need to ensure the safety of their own journalists, and to ensure they are "careful about how they use social" and that it does end up putting them at risk.

5. Don't forget the community on your own website

And while the session was focused on social media, Johnson reminded news outlets not to forget what he described as "the social media sites right under our noses".

Referring to the Economist's mission statement – which is "to provoke severe discussion between ignorance and intelligence" – he said the magazine understands this discussion is not limited to "the pages of its magazine and conferences", but "all around the web".

But Johnson added that it is also important for news outlets to remember the engaged and loyal community already existing on their own sites.

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