Social media and news: Tapping into the digital audience

By Sneha Kulkarni

Social networking and social media sites are undeniably powerful tools in today’s information landscape.  For journalists, such as myself, the challenge now is learning how to optimize social media, while still meeting deadlines and ensuring accuracy.

When a severe storm system swept into Southern Ontario on December 13, 2010 it dumped as much as 50 centimeters of snow in one night, and stranded hundreds of people on a highway near Sarnia. Colin Stewart was among the nearly 300 people marooned on highway 402.  He didn’t have much gas, food, or even a way to get out of the snowstorm, but like many in today’s wired world, he had a BlackBerry. While he waited for the roads to clear and for emergency crews to help him out, Stewart kept warm in his car and spent his time updating his Facebook page.

Meanwhile reporters at The Canadian Press in Toronto were scouring sites like Facebook and Twitter in hopes of finding and talking to one of the stranded motorists. Angela Pacienza, director of online news for The Canadian Press, recalls, “the military couldn’t get into the area let alone journalists, so we knew we had to work the phones and the internet.”

With the help of, a real time social media search engine, The Canadian Press spotted Stewart’s updates and contacted him through a BlackBerry contact listed on his Facebook page. This resulted in an eyewitness account interview. Stewart also agreed to take and upload some pictures and video with his phone, which gave The Canadian Press immediate access to exclusive video of the hardest hit area of the storm as seen through the eyes of a stranded driver.

Relying only on information gathered on the street and from official sources is not always enough when an entire online world also exists, in which countless discussions are taking place at any given time. The prevalence of internet and video-ready phones gives the public the power to document and publish news as they see it happen. Stewart’s friends and family were already getting a first-hand glimpse of his experience on Facebook, but one resourceful reporter made it possible for thousands of Canadians to also share Stewart’s experience and see his video on news websites and television newscasts across the country.
Like many reporters, I am turning to social media to supplement traditional news gathering methods in breaking news situations, but social networking and media sites can also help for softer news stories.

Recently I was looking for a personal angle for an advance story on the Toronto Santa Claus Parade. I noticed mom bloggers and others talking on Twitter under a #TOSanta hash tag about what to take to the parade to keep their kids happy in the cold. I started tweeting about favourite parade memories and began a conversation with one of the more active Twitter users. She was a stay at home mom with three kids. She had been going to the parade since she was a little girl, and it had huge sentimental meaning to her. We immediately exchanged phone numbers and by the next morning I was in her home doing an interview on camera with her and her kids as they made their wish lists for Santa and recalled memories from past parades. It was a unique personal story angle sourced from searching hash tags and engaging Twitter users.
News is becoming a social experience. New media expert Clay Shirky argues that audiences are no longer passive consumers. Individuals are becoming “prosumers”, taking active roles in gathering, producing, sharing and consuming media content.

A 2010 study conducted by the U.S. based Pew Research Centre into news habits found that 37 percent of internet users actively contributed to the creation, commentary, and dissemination of news through online activity. Additionally the survey showed that nearly 60 percent of people get their news from a combination of online and offline sources. This is further proof that maintaining a strong online presence and catering to this generation’s wired and plugged in audience is essential for today’s journalists and news organizations.

Taking advantage of and tapping into the potential leads, sources, and information available through social networking sites goes beyond trolling Facebook statuses, or arbitrarily tweeting headlines with links to stories. Sites like,, and Google Advanced Search can search multiple social networking sites at once for keywords or places. Advanced Twitter search,, and are all useful for searching specific hash tags or keywords within Twitter.
Pacienza says, “There is no black and white answer on how to use social media in journalism, it is very much an evolving thing”, and the tricks and tools to help navigate social media are also changing. A year ago Twitter may have seemed like a fad to some, but in the past seven months the number of Canadian Twitter accounts has increased by 75 percent. Reports also show our country boasts the highest per capita YouTube consumption in the world.

Social media cannot be ignored, but it is also important to point out that these sites don’t replace traditional news gathering practices such as physically going out to a scene and making cold calls, or the art of interviewing and storytelling. However, learning how to navigate social media is an important tool for today’s journalists, and there are greater opportunities for those who can forge relationships with online communities.

Engaging Twitter followers to discuss current events by posing questions and answers about news topics and re-tweeting comments is one way to help build sources and networks. But this kind of long-term relationship building requires a dutiful effort on the part of journalists to see the public as an active partner in the journalism process, not passive viewers.

Sneha Kulkarni is a television journalist in Toronto and a student in the Master of Arts in Professional Communication program at Royal Roads University.