When gunmen began firing indiscriminately at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport last month, British journalist Laurence Cameron was among the first to get the word out.
The message he posted to Facebook read: “Something kicking off at the airport here in Istanbul, mass panic, people shouting about bombs. Rumours of an attack.”
Dozens of people died in the shooting and subsequent bombing, though Cameron managed to escape. His photographs of the attack, initially posted to Facebook, were carried by BBC News, the Guardian, and NBC.
Cameron’s experience is just one example of how social media and developing technology have changed the way media reports on conflicts around the world.
Almost half (43 per cent) of the global population now owns a smartphone, according to Pew, and it’s never been easier for journalists to find eyewitnesses on the ground documenting breaking news in real-time via social media and livestream video.
And for journalists out in the field, social media offers routes to sources and stories in just a few finger-taps; routes that didn’t even exist 10 years ago.
“We can access stuff from all sorts of places all over the world now,” explained Kim Bui, deputy managing editor at Reported.ly.
“That's opened up a whole new world for our audiences – they're getting news that they probably wouldn't have gotten before.”
On the other hand, Bui noted the difficulty in offering comprehensive context around breaking news from the assignment desk, as opposed to being on the ground as events are unfolding.
She recently returned from a fellowship in South Africa, working on a story she had been researching from afar.
Through having that first-hand experience, and being able to speak to people in person, she feels she has gained more understanding about the complexities of the issue than she would have gained “from Skype calls or a few tweets”.
“That's the danger when people are pulling stuff from tweets,” Bui added. “Not really questioning what's happening, or asking any questions of anybody”.
Foreign bureaus under threat
International reporting has always been expensive to facilitate and, given the reduced resources under which many newsrooms now operate, many outlets have significantly scaled back their number of foreign bureaus.
The threat from terror groups such as ISIS – for whom journalists are a commodity to capture or kill – also means that many areas are now simply inaccessible for field reporters.
There's no doubt that even very good foreign reporters have to rely on user-generated content a lot more than they did in the pastDavid Clinch, Storyful
Pew's 2014 State of the News Media report found the number of foreign correspondents working for US newspapers had dropped by almost a quarter in the last decade, from 307 in 2003 to 234 in 2011.
And while some outlets work with freelancers and local stringers to plug the gap, there are issues around safety and fair pay with this practice too.
“There's no doubt that even very good foreign reporters have to rely on user-generated content (UGC) a lot more than they did in the past,” David Clinch, global news editor at Storyful, told Journalism.co.uk.
However, while social media might offer unprecedented access to breaking news events, it also brings an increasing need for all journalists to have at least a basic level of verification skills.
After all, it’s not just journalists and eyewitnesses posting to social media when news breaks.
Along with the inevitable hoaxers and trolls, terror groups are “certainly as active as the people on the ground", according to Clinch.
In February, Twitter announced it had shut down 125,000 accounts in the last year "for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS".
Like Bui, Clinch also highlighted the need for journalists to provide additional context, rather than simple curation, “to help people understand what they're seeing, not just looking at dead bodies or exploding tanks”.
Not only has social media overtaken the shoe-leather reporting approach for many journalists, it has also had an irrevocable impact on the way reporters present themselves and their work.
As Emma Beals, a freelance producer who has reported from areas including Syria, Iraq, and Uganda, told Journalism.co.uk: “When you’re on the ground you do feel this pressure to be disseminating information or building your brand in some way”.
This pressure not only makes it “very difficult to switch off”, she explained, but it can also be a threat to safety in circumstances where reporters might not want to reveal their location.
Beals also said she feels more vulnerable to trolling and “hate campaigns” when she is out in the field, than she does reporting from the relative safety of an office.
“It has a slightly more pervasive feeling about it,” she explained.
And while social media offers opportunities for crowdsourcing opinions and real-time debate, it is not appropriate for every story.
"Writing articles based on tweets is all very well if you're discussing the response of the London Twitterati to Brexit.
"It's quite another when you're discussing whether or not a war crime was committed in a particular area based solely on that kind of content," Beals noted.
Twitter is Beals’ go-to social media platform for her job, although she said that she tries to “consciously step back” from it when in the field, to avoid getting swept up in the immediacy of the platform and making statements that are not necessarily helpful.
“I would rather wait a couple of days and get more of a handle on the conversation, and then be contributing in a way that has a little more facts,” she explained.
At Reported.ly, the team publishes to Twitter first but also does “a lot of chatting” with people via chat apps such as WhatsApp or Telegram, not necessarily for use in reporting, but to aid with background research, verification, and context.
Livestream video is also becoming a staple of conflict reporting, as popularised by networks such as AJ+, which used Facebook Live to stream an interactive report on refugees crossing the Austria-Germany border.
Alongside Facebook Live, apps such as Periscope mean anyone with a smartphone now has easy access to broadcast video in real-time.
Just last week, the immediate aftermath of the shooting of Philando Castile – a black man killed by a police officer during a routine traffic stop in Minnesota – was streamed by Castile's girlfriend on Facebook Live.
When news breaks, livestreaming platforms mean journalists literally have “live cameras right there ready to go,” said Clinch.
He recalled hearing about journalists heading to Brussels in the wake of the March terror attacks, watching eyewitnesses livestreaming on Periscope, identifying their location via the Periscope map, and then jumping in a taxi straight there.
“If you don't have somebody on your team with an understanding of how Periscope works, you're missing the opportunity to see... eye-witnesses, stories from people who are actually there, pointers for where your journalists should go,” he said.
“That's newsgathering 21st-century style, and all journalists should be doing it.“
Free daily newsletter
- Aesthetic journalism: Overcoming censorship and documenting Syrian conflict with a sketchbook
- Newsrewired speaker announcement: Matt McAlister joins panel on new social media strategies for content sharing
- 'I never want to be this dependent on one platform': Can your publication survive without Facebook?
- Report: Audiences are ditching Facebook for sharing news, favouring the ‘safe space’ of private messaging apps
- Do you work with refugee journalists? If not, your news organisation may be missing out