News is more than just eyewitness and a mobile pic

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I was in Camden on Saturday afternoon when I first started to read the rumours on Twitter that Amy Winehouse had died at her home.

Being the inquisitive journalist, I easily found her address and by the time I'd arrived there were numerous police officers, snappers and large swathes of Camden Square were cordoned off with officers everywhere. It was clear something gravely serious had happened.

Because the newsdesk at BBC Television Centre had dispatched trucks, crews and reporters, I was free to revert to an ordinary member of the public at an international news event that would, for a few hours, become a huge focus of attention.

Members of the public who'd already turned up had read about what was happening on Twitter. One bloke I spoke to said he found where Amy Winehouse had lived because someone in Camden Square had geotagged their tweet.

One of the snappers shouted: "Poor girl's gone..." Everyone then checked their Twitter to confirm that it was true.

I also started to tweet and post pictures. Within minutes my tweets were being picked up by media outlets from Los Angeles to Venezuela.

I noticed a surge in followers of my Twitter account - a picture I'd posted on TwitPic had been picked up by @BreakingNews, the service with more than 2.5 million followers.

Having worked at the BBC's UGC Hub in the past, I understand how valuable stills can be to rolling news, so I was conscious that pictures I was posting could be picked up and used by websites around the world without my permission.

I was also getting requests via Twitter from media organisations outside of the UK to speak. My loyalty to the BBC prevented me from doing so, though I would have been happy to.

In short, if a news organisation anywhere in the world had been savvy enough, it could easily have reported the tragedy live from the location thanks to the internet, and it wouldn't have cost it anything.

Surely another indication of how the age of traditional media is over? Definitely not.

The photos I took with my phone were indeed used on foreign news websites at no cost to them, but they were just that: pictures taken with a phone. They are no match for a skilled pap with an enormous camera and telephoto lens, linked to Fleet Street via their laptop.

I could easily have talked to a US news organisation about my experience, but what do I know? I couldn't add understanding or context for their audience - that's the job of their reporter.

News is more than just an eyewitness and a mobile phone picture.

In fact, if you look back at the coverage of Amy Winehouse's tragic death, the only way social media had an impact on the story was the rush of celebrities publishing their condolences. In real times that simply meant a few less phone calls from journalists to publicists.

The trapped miners in Chile, MPs' expenses, the hacking scandal, last year's general election, the Japanese earthquake and the horrific events in Norway - did social media add value to the reporting of any of those stories?

Of course there will always be the very rare exceptions, like an aircraft landing on the Hudson River.

By Saturday evening more than 15,000 people had clicked to look at photos I'd posted from Camden Square (above) - nearly the same amount as those who'd clicked via all of BBC News' accounts to see the first photo of the NASA shuttle Atlantis arriving on earth after its last mission.

I had thousands of people who started to follow me because I was outside Amy Winehouse's home as the news broke, but they 'unfollowed' me just as quickly on Sunday when I tweeted about my neighbour's inability to light their barbecue.

Social media is a hugely powerful tool whose importance many news organsations are yet to grasp. But if you believe that it's going to fundamentally change the way news is gathered and reported, I think you're wrong.

Robert Coxwell is a multimedia journalist in the BBC newsroom. He was one of the launch producers of the BBC TV programme Your News, the first show on British television based entirely on user-generated content. Prior to joining the BBC, he worked at Sky News. 

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