"Twitter is great for beginners as it is open and everything is accessible to you", says Yasmine El Rafie, who is development editor for social media at Swedish Public Radio. "Whatever you are looking for you can just do a Twitter search and it's there." But her view is that you should also look to other networks such as Facebook – where "you can reach the masses".
In this feature we look at how can journalists reach out to people beyond their normal networks, for example using forums, SMS and other social networks such as Weibo, to find news stories and sources from different communities.
It focuses on gathering news and finding contacts from BME (black, minority and ethnic) communities in the UK, and also at newsgathering in different parts of the world.
There is also advice on thinking about the social networks and online spaces where you push out stories.
Reaching diverse sources and audiences in the UK
The good news is that diverse communities are often active online, as Sharma says. "Ethnic minorities the world over seldom feel heard in mainstream discourse, so over the years minority and persecuted communities have taken to the web to feel visible, heard, and to take part in the conversation," she told Journalism.co.uk.
"If their view of the world is not represented in the country they live in, it is not unusual for these communities to go where they can get information that is relevant to them and to connect with people who are speaking the same kind of language or have the same kind of issues as they do. And I don't mean just issues to do with race, but also perception. Of course, it's very easy to find people of like-minded views and thoughts and ideas online."
So what are the online spaces where people from diverse communities in the UK often communicate?
"For example, postcode wars, how there would be a conflict between one neighbourhood and another neighbourhood solely based on the address, not race, not religion."
The researcher also told El Rafie about "discussions on homophobia and gay Muslims", threats which could be interesting for journalists to follow whether as a source of stories or to better understand the community.
- Twitter hashtags
"Why not just go to the hashtag and add as many of them as possible to a Twitter list? Then you have your own news agency that you can just follow. Mostly there will not be much difference in that list to other conversations on Twitter, but now and then you might get a discussion that you don't have elsewhere."
BBM was also highlighted by the web editor of Nigerian Watch, a newspaper for the UK Nigerian community, El Rafie said, when she spoke to him about how he monitored the "buzz" of conversations. He has an extensive Facebook network and also listens to the "chatter" from BBM, such as conversations about DJ club nights and religious gatherings, El Rafie explained.
"I got the sense that the messages that move around in this group do not really distinguish necessarily between the diaspora and the community in Nigeria."
- Facebook groups
And when El Rafie was working on a story about growing up in a mixed-race household, she found a small Facebook group of people who "have a Finnish mother and a non-Finnish father". "All of a sudden I had group of people I could contact for my story."
Newsgathering from afar
Journalists can gather stories and voices by both monitoring online conversations and reaching out to people who may be thousands of miles away.
Initial contact could be via social or other online platforms, but what about areas without a strong internet connection and where smartphone penetration is low?
Esra Dogramaci, who is now in London completing an MA in politics and communication at LSE, was involved in projects for Al Jazeera which gathered news from Libya, Uganda and Gaza via SMS and simple voice calls.
She said it is important to bear in mind that "Al Jazeera has a reputation for covering the voices of people who are naturally not included in the mainstream media narrative."
So how do you access these harder-to-reach communities?
- Phone and SMS
Working with the web and TV broadcast teams, Al Jazeera's social team reached out to people in northern Uganda.
They set up local phone numbers and asked local radio stations to broadcast the number. The team also set up a number in Doha so Ugandans who were living overseas were able to share opinions too.
"We went through all the messages, filtering them for spam or abuse, and then plotted them on a map," Dogramaci explained.
In November 2012 attention was on the assault on Gaza, and again Al Jazeera used simple phone technology to gather opinion.I think it's increasingly important that we do use the web to get all of those diverse voices and stories out and then think of ways of presenting them in a meaningful wayRamaa Sharma
"What we always try to do at Al Jazeera is get both sides of the argument," Dogramaci said. "We wanted to have a look at how the bombardment was affecting ordinary people's lives, both Palestinians and Israelis.
"So we looked at who were the people who were active online and using personal connections to find people on the ground and how this was really affecting their lives."
She said the aim was to find out "if the narrative being broadcast by 'wider media' was accurate".
The team recorded the phone interviews, uploading them to SoundCloud.
Similarly Al Jazeera used phone and SMS services in the run up to last year's elections in Libya, the first since the fall of Gaddafi, adding the voices to an Ushahidi open-source map.
- Sending sources cameras
The web and social teams sent 15 cameras to three major cities: Benghazi, Tripoli and Misrata.
"We identified people online; bloggers, activists, people who were talking about Libya, and asked them to find ordinary Libyan citizens and ask them two very simple questions: would they be voting and what were their hopes or expectations."
Dogramaci explained however that the internet connectivity was poor so results were limited.
Dmitry Shishkin, who is now digital development editor at BBC Global News and used to be at the World Service, told us the "two newsrooms are using social media to the best of their advantage when it comes to collecting and harnessing user-generated content".
"With all of the events that have been happening in Iran in the last few years, BBC Persian has been riding the wave," both using social media to gather news and to push it out.
As Sharma described it, for BBC Persian "social is not a luxury", with core newsgathering taking place by finding out then verifying information from social networks.
Beyond the main social networks
UK newsrooms may focus their efforts on pushing stories out and driving traffic through Facebook and Twitter, but there are other networks popular in particular countries.
Shishkin explained that Orkut was a key focus for BBC Brasil, as the platform, which is now owned by Google, was particularly popular there.
In Russia and the Ukraine VK is popular. "There the domestic social media network is much bigger than Facebook or Twitter," Shishkin said, "And so the audience you get on VK differs from the audience on Facebook and Twitter and you are able to reach the audience which otherwise would not get onto the BBC News website."
And China has one of the largest social media networks in the world, called Weibo.
"BBC Chinese is a good example of how you try to navigate and get to the users in a market which is pretty difficult to penetrate," Shishkin said. "The key thing about BBC Chinese is the main news website is blocked in China. The BBC runs another BBC Chinese website which talks more about learning English and about culture and sport, and that site is permitted in China. So the team is using social media to ensure there is an awareness of the brand."
Ramaa Sharma, who has been in Delhi since February, said that it is worth considering communication methods beyond popular social networks. She mentioned that Yahoo Groups are regularly used there and that it is worth joining communities around topics.
Sharma works with both the BBC Hindi service and the India index of the English-language site BBC.com, and said how the team finds stories that resonate with both Indian communities around the world and in India.
Sharma gave the example of how they gathered feedback on a story on planning in India, pushing it out to the BBC Hindi Facebook page and the @BBCIndia Twitter account.
"We found that both of those communities were saying very different things, had very different concerns," she said. "The English-speaking community is global and was interested in India's place in the world, while the Hindi community, with some people based in rural heartlands and small metro cities, was interested in 4G connection in rural areas and how can education be more digital.
"So we had these two very different communities talking about two very different things, bigger picture and smaller picture, but by weaving that into a story together we can offer richer journalism, more inclusive of a variety of voices inside and outside of India and provide a better product."
"The beauty of online is that you have more space to write and have more space to engage on social. I think it's increasingly important that we do use the web to get all of those diverse voices and stories out and then think of ways of presenting them in a meaningful way."
A podcast featuring Ramaa Sharma, Esra Dogramaci, Yasmine El Rafie and Dmitry Shishkin is at this link.
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