Social media and breaking news: Why authenticity trumps authority almost every time

There were a number of panels at the Web Summit in Dublin this week that talked about media and journalism, but the one that included VICE News, Time Inc. and Storyful was the discussion that has stuck with me — mostly because of a comment that Storyful founder Mark Little made about the paradigm shift that we’ve seen over the past few years involving real-time social media or “citizen journalism.” Among other things, Little said that “authenticity has replaced authority” when it comes to news, and especially what journalists like to call breaking news.

That makes for a great sound bite — you can tell that Little used to be a TV correspondent before he started the company — but what does it actually mean? For me at least, it means that many people (not all, of course, but many) are willing to pay more attention to sources of information that they believe are close to an event, rather than to traditional sources of sober, objective second-hand or third-hand information. In this scenario, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat are the platforms that stand to gain, and traditional media like newspapers or even television mostly lose.

This isn’t going to be the case in every situation, but when it comes to breaking news about a specific event, in the initial stages of that event attention is always going to flow to the sources that are closest to the action, even if — and this is the really important part — the “authority” or credibility of those sources is in question. As Little put it during the Web Summit panel:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Now people can bypass us using a camera phone and a social network, and the means of production have been completely overturned. Now everyone out there is a creator of content, and our job is more as managers of an overabundance of content.”[/blockquote]

Dial up the immediacy, dial down the authority

We’ve seen this happen time and time again, whether it’s during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere, or in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, or any of the mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. over the past couple of years. Even if the information is flawed and inherently untrustworthy — at least by the standard journalistic definition — people flock to it, share it, discuss it, and engage with it. It might not be the kind of behavior that media outlets would like to see, but it’s what happens. And it’s going to continue to happen.

Citizen journalism

This is an analogy I’ve used before, but it’s almost like people have two dials in front of them that they can use to filter or change the information they get: one of them says “speed” and/or “immediacy” on it, and the other one says “facts” and/or “authority.” And what many people do, using services like Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat, is dial the first one of those up as soon as something newsworthy happens.

At this point, all they want is information — as much as possible, and from someone who is as close to whatever is happening as they can get, regardless of whether they meet some objective definition of “journalist.” They want photos and videos and real-time updates; in other words, immediacy. Whether that information is 100-percent reliable or fact-checked by a media entity is effectively irrelevant. They want the authenticity that comes with being there, and they want to feel an emotional connection to the person sharing that information.

As the amount of time that has elapsed since the event increases, many people will start to turn down the speed or immediacy dial and turn up the fact/authority dial. Now they will want to know whether those photos or videos they saw are true or not (which is what Storyful does), whether the person who took them was who they claimed to be, and they will want to put the news into some kind of context — to understand it on a deeper level. This is where traditional journalists and platforms have the edge, at least for now, because they have the resources to pull together that sort of thing.

Stock and flow both have value

In a way, this is just another form of what some call “stock and flow,” a concept that author Robin Sloan described in a very perceptive essay in 2010 — the idea being that sometimes we are interested in the flow of real-time information, i.e. the Twitter stream or a feed of YouTube videos, without necessarily caring that it is ephemeral or untrustworthy. And at other times, we look for “stock,” as in information that is fixed or unchanging in some way. Both have value at different times and for different reasons.

Many traditional media companies, particularly newspapers, excel at one of those things but aren’t so good at the other: they are good at amassing information and checking it and verifying it and distributing it with nice pictures and a great typeface, but not so good at the real-time flow part. And I think that’s why the Web Summit panel described Twitter as competition for media entities — for better or worse, the network specializes in flow, and allows people to get the quick hits of immediacy that they want better than anything traditional media has at its disposal.

Can mainstream media outlets get better at delivering the immediacy or authenticity that people want in that kind of situation? I think they can, but it requires thinking about the job of a journalist in a somewhat different way — and it also requires a lot more flexibility, in order to juggle the demands of those two dials, immediacy and fact, without losing sight of either one. That’s why services like Storyful or are so interesting, because they are trying to bridge the gap between those two principles in different ways.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / 1000 Words and Flickr user Petteri Sulonen