How Social Media Journalism is Preventing Stories From Falling Through the Cracks

Feb 7, 2013

Students at Drury University Thursday were offered a glimpse into the world of National Public Radio’s social media senior strategist, Andy Carvin. His presentation was part of the school’s series highlighting how media and technology are changing the way we communicate. KSMU’s Scott Harvey sat down with the guest speaker and has this report.

About two years ago, Andy Carvin’s daily routine involved working with various NPR show producers and assignment desks on how to utilize tools like Twitter and Facebook for interacting with the public, and then incorporating those elements into their reporting.

But at the height of the Arab Spring, Carvin set out on a new path.

“It didn’t start off as an assignment or anything, it was just something I found personally interesting,” Carvin said. “It grew from there to the point that I found myself doing nothing but spending time on social media 18 hours a day, keeping up with half a dozen revolutions at once.”

He’s recently come out with a book entitled Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution, explaining how Carvin grew a network of social media contacts into a new form of journalism, in which civilians in these areas told the news.

Carvin explains that he became fascinated with the spread of protests from one place to another, beginning with the Tunisia uprising in late 2010, and began building up source lists, essentially embedding himself as a reporter within these revolutionary groups. It’s a very different type of reporting, Carvin says, adding he would never see this as a replacement for those reporting on the ground.

“Instead, I see this as a way of complementing that type of reporting because I’m able to mobilize forces through social media and tap into their collective knowledge.”

At last count, he had nearly 87,000 Twitter followers. That includes numerous people living in Northern Africa and the Persian Gulf who know the various dialects in the region, professionals in the medical field or ex-military members, and those who specialize in detective work. This massive group of reporters, he says, can help separate fact from fiction.

“When someone shares a video with me and claims that it’s from a particular context I will share it with my followers on Twitter and ask them to scrutinize it. And they’ll do everything from listen for accents, look for landmarks in the background, they’ll look at the timestamps associated with the footage and see if it matches the appropriate time for a call to prayer taking place in a certain city,” Carvin says.

Carvin says followers can also analyze legitimacy through visible weather elements, adding that by initiating this group conversation, he can often authenticate things much faster than by calling up an official agency like the Department of Defense.

In his book, Distant Witness, Carvin explains how he’s used social media to cover these Arab revolutions, but more importantly, he says, to tell some of the stories that happened in these countries. Carvin says without social medial, these stories may have fallen through the cracks, which is one of the points he intended to make Thursday in his presentation at Drury.

Carvin is also hoping his technique for covering revolutions and geopolitical change abroad can create ideas for day-to-day journalists back home.

“The only way we’re going to figure it out is to try experimenting. And so whether it has to do with crime reporting, or education reporting, health reporting… whatever it happens to be, I want to inspire people to want to attempt these methods to see what works and what doesn’t to make their journalism better as well.”

Carvin says social media isn’t necessarily going to be a “magic bullet for saving journalism,” but he believes it can serve as a way of finding some of those stories that fall through the cracks and deserve to be told.

You can learn more about Drury University’s speaker series, titled Voices Unbound: New Media and the Future of Democracy, by clicking here.

For KSMU News, I’m Scott Harvey.