#bbcsms: Session report - Changing the culture of journalism

Friday 20 May 2011, 10:30

Graham Holliday Graham Holliday lives in Africa and is a foreign correspondent, photojournalist, lecturer and BBC journalism trainer. Twitter: @noodlepie

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The first day of the BBC Social Media Summit (#bbcsms) discussed changes to journalistic culture. Graham Holliday reports:

A number of cultural challenges in the adoption and use of social media came up in discussion on day one of #bbcsms on Thursday. Interestingly, none were directly related to journalism. The key cultural problems that were identified were associated with ingrained attitudes and technological limitations.

Firstly, there is still a great deal of snobbery in the workplace around crowdsourced information. One suggestion, as a way of combating this, was to pander to the journalist's ego with the use of metrics:

"At the end of the day, metrics play into everybody's ego. It's a powerful driver to show how more people are reading your story due to social media."

However, others complained of problems interpreting metrics:

"We need to do a better job of understanding and showing what these metrics mean. 'Number of page views' was a metric we never really understood. There are too many numbers now. How you use this data and how you communicate it is becoming more and more important."

Secondly, one editor noted how this huge shift in how people receive and interact with news in the 21st century is received in the newsroom:

"Everyone in the newsroom grew up thinking they are the gatekeepers. User-generated content is hard for these journalists to understand. To go from being gatekeepers to the new way of thinking is a huge shift. How you get over the barrier - the fear - of meeting and interacting with the public in an online space is something we're still battling with."

One of the biggest problems that came up in discussion centred on the constantly changing technology and tools available. A number of editors admitted making mistakes while experimenting with new tools - which made them cautious to experiment further. Some mistakes were made during major news events:

"We've had slip-ups. We were trying to do new things on the live page during the royal wedding and a tiny coding error made the whole thing fall over. We lost the international video feed."

All editors and journalists agreed that the technology must be simple and must work: otherwise the whole process is self-defeating. A number of the larger news organisations remarked how content management system constraints held them back. Others emphasised the intelligent use of external, rather than bespoke in-house, social media services. Although one newspaper editor said it was important to make the right choice of tool:

"It's very important to consider which tools you can safely outsource to someone else and which ones you have to be in control of. It's crucial to get the underlying architecture right - you don't want to have to rebuild."

Lastly, one major barrier was to do with rank and a culture of caution:

"The heads of news organisations often understand what needs to change, what's possible and what's needed. The lower ranks also understand and, indeed, are often the best practitioners and experimenters. They're the ones pushing the boundaries. However, the middle ranks fear change and try to stifle it as they fear crossing barriers."

Graham Holliday - @noodlepie - is a foreign correspondent, photojournalist, university lecturer and BBC journalism trainer. He has worked on blogs, social media and citizen journalism projects since 2002.


Reports from other groups discussing the issues:

Paul Bradshaw writes: Social media is increasingly widely accepted within news organisations - thanks to a combination of high-profile users within the organisation, compulsory training and some spectacular examples of its use, most recently with protests in the Arab world.

For many reporters, however, social media tools are something separate from their core work - to which the reply comes: 'Speaking to sources and getting information IS your core job, whatever the tool.'

For some, there is a danger of putting too much value in the tool, or being too careless in its use. Training is vital in preventing mistakes from being made in public, and ensuring that journalists keep their eye on the bigger picture.

Finally, we need to remember that the audience is undergoing cultural change as well. Some are getting their news within closed networks - and it's important that journalists are communicating within those. Some are using social networks alongside traditional news consumption - second screen usage - and others respond well to being able to connect directly with news providers.

And we should remember that journalists cannot turn up on Facebook on the day of a demonstration or major event - they have to be building contacts and relationships in preparation for the day that that happens.

Paul Bradshaw - @paulbradshaw - is founder of the Online Journalism Blog and the crowdsourcing website Helpmeinvestigate. He is a visiting professor at City University, London and runs the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University.


Daniel Bennett writes: Social media tools are now commonplace in the newsroom. Twitter has become the digital newsgathering tool of choice; Facebook is being used to build communities around programmes; and YouTube is providing images for stories that journalists are unable to access.         

Journalists across media organisations have realised that a networked digital environment has significant potential to enhance, augment and inform their journalism.  

Cultural transformation in newsrooms has most often been achieved through a combination of grassroots activity and strong leadership, particularly where the people at the top are willing to let those who are experimenting make mistakes.

Although forcing the unwilling has probably been counterproductive, social media evangelists within news organisations have encouraged, educated, persuaded and inspired their colleagues to explore the new media world.  

The use of social media to cover major news events and the opportunity to build an engaged community of people around a programme have also helped to convince sceptics. Others have been drawn by the ego-building attention and instant feedback of the online world.

Many journalists have had a social media 'epiphany': they've 'seen the light' and they 'get it'.    

Daniel Bennett - @Dan_10v11 - is a PhD candidate in the War Studies Department at King's College, London, writing a thesis on the impact of blogging on the BBC's coverage of war and terrorism.


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