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How social media has changed the news

by Laura Marchand September 22, 2015
How social media has changed the news

Yale Law School researcher Valerie Bélair-Gagnon discussed social media use at the BBC

The dark side of verifying information, crisis reporting, and the BBC were the focus of a talk hosted at Concordia University on Sept. 17.

Photo by Andrej Ivanov.

Photo by Andrej Ivanov.

Valerie Bélair-Gagnon, a research scholar at Yale Law School, spoke to a crowd about the importance placed on social media in times of crisis, based on her experience embedded with the BBC in London.

The talk, “From London to Paris: Social Media and the Transformation of Crisis Reporting,” was jointly presented by the Department for Communication Studies and the Concordia Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism Studies. The event took place on the seventh floor of the Hall Building on the Sir George Williams campus.

Bélair-Gagnon alleges that a shift within the BBC towards social media occurred in 2005, following the London 7/7 bombing attacks that targeted the metropolis’ public transit system during rush hour traffic.

“Trapped in the London underground, witnesses used their mobile phones to take pictures and video recordings of the events as they unfolded,” said Bélair-Gagnon. “Unable to employ its journalists, the BBC used citizen material to report the news.”

According to Bélair-Gagnon, initially the BBC social media hub was seven floors away from the newsroom in the BBC headquarters. Following the 7/7 attacks, that unit was not only moved onto the news floor, but was placed in the centre of the newsroom. It would be another six years before Bélair-Gagnon entered the BBC as an independent researcher to study how the journalists coped with social media.

One of the many challenges the journalists faced was what Bélair-Gagnon referred to as the “the light side and dark side of verification.” The “light side” referred to material that the BBC had gathered itself through trustworthy sources. The “dark side” referred to material emerging from social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Content on the dark side came from unconfirmed and anonymous sources, which made integrating social media a difficult task.

“[BBC journalists] wanted to reconcile journalism and social media,” said Bélair-Gagnon. “The question for the BBC and other news organizations was how to use the wealth of publicly available material that are on the dark side of verification, while maintaining its journalistic standards.”

Bélair-Gagnon explained that this change within the BBC has changed the fundamental journalistic practices of the organization, and of many newsrooms worldwide.

“I witnessed more and more interaction [with the audience] taking place online,” said Bélair-Gagnon. “Reporting has become a messy patchwork of old and new media practices and norms, in which citizen journalists have chosen to participate.”

However, Gagnon also notes that such a patchwork has “led to more tensions in the newsroom.”

After the presentation, Gagnon answered questions from the crowd on her methodology, experience at BBC, and opinion of modern journalistic practices. The crowd consisted of students and professors from Concordia, the Université de Montreal, and a class of CEGEP students from Dawson College.

The event was based off of Bélair-Gagnon’s book, titled Social Media at BBC News: The Re-Making of Crisis Reporting, published by the Routledge Research in Journalism publishing house and available on Amazon.

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