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October 6, 2009

The Effects of Social Reporting Over Traditional Media

The Iranian election in June this year has been used as a key source of analysis for the comparison between social and traditional media in providing up-to-the-minute reporting on world events.

The controversial presidential election held in Iran on June 12 this year saw incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win a landslide victory, but the result was associated with charges of voting fraud which led to weeks of post-election unrest and, according to reports, left at least thirty people dead during the street protests.

But what were the effects of the coverage by social against traditional media? According to Nielsen, the Iranian election was “yet another watershed moment in the ongoing evolution of news and media, further blurring the lines between being, reporting, and following the story.

An initial Nielsen analysis of search results on the election found that: “Wikipedia emerged within the top two search results for 4/5 of the leading topics; at least one social media source emerged within the top 10 search results for every term; and in most cases, the social media sites emerged directly above a traditional, major news source.

What this showed was a marked shift in online news, as this event highlighted, more than any other, that the Iranian election was a watershed moment for social media.

As Nielsen pointed out: “YouTube emerged within the top 10 search results for all search terms in the second week; Wikipedia remained within the top three search results in the second week for four of the five search terms; and Twitter emerges within the top 20 search results in week two – specifically, the Twitter results for Moussavi and Ahmadinejad…The conflict in Iran [is the]…most sophisticated example of how the world has changed for journalists, the media and increasingly active media consumers alike.

So what did this “watershed” media moment signify? It certainly pointed to the fact that consumer-generated media by far eclipsed traditional news sources, with people accessing breaking news on Wikipedia and YouTube, rather than the New York Times or the BBC.

According to Mashable:Twitter is by far the best social media tool for breaking news second-by-second information on what happening in Iran and that people across the globe were chatting about every news item.

During the Iranian election, YouTube was the main distribution video channel, as locals posted vigorously on what was happening on the ground, and out there in the blogosphere they were far quicker in posting breaking news from Iran than traditional media, with Flickr positively overflowing with gruesome images of beatings and of the protests themselves.

According to The Web Ecology Project which focuses on data mining to analyse and understand culture on the web through quantitative research, the summary of its findings on the Iranian election was: “mashable is more influential than CNN; sockington is more influential than MCHammer; celebrities with higher follower totals foster more conversation than provide retweetable content; and that news outlets, regardless of follower count, influence large amounts of followers to republish their content to other users.

With the seemingly unstoppable advance of Twitter, a report, “The Influentials: New Approaches for Analyzing Influence on Twitter“, talks about Twitter “simplifying extraneous features…and boils down its environment to people and content…but failed to identify the nuances of social interaction in the system, the analyses tended to focus on the ‘connections between users rather than the relationship of users, content, and platform’.

It is a strange phenomenon in a way, given that the BBC had several correspondents in Iran at the time. However, there were “heavy restrictions” placed on the BBC and other news organisations, as reporters were not allowed to cover news the Iranian authorities regarded as off-limits. This impediment to reporting led to the BBC’s comment on the discussion about Iran: “The majority of messages on Twitter, both within Iran and abroad, are from Mousavi sympathisers – a factor we need to allow for.

As an aside, a website I came across recently is a Twitter monitor called Monitter. It allows users to have multiple columns of keywords in order to monitor what is being posted on Twitter in real time. To follow major international breaking news stories, it is a favourite source for some in monitoring a situation as it happens.

According to Sacred Facts’ Twittering the Uprising?: “If you, as an average news consumer, relied on Twitter you might believe all sorts of things had happened, which simply hadn’t, running a high risk of being seriously misled about events on the ground. You might at best, have simply been confused. You probably wouldn’t have thought Ahmadinejad enjoys much popular support at all.

Because of the restrictions placed on traditional media on the covering of the elections, social media proved to be a huge benefit in the vacuum of news coverage – as it was one of the few ways for the Iranian people to communicate with election-watchers in the West.

However, it is all very well for the general public to find its niche in reporting major news events, but for the BBC, what stood out in all this is that their journalists “exercise care and to check information before publishing it as fact”, thus it is still a much more reliable source of news dissemination than people’s news that is likely to post dubious “links, rumours and reports”.

Whilst provided additional, more personal channels and sources for people following this story, there is still no real place to dispose of traditional media just yet; it just needs to speed up its response to the social media phenomenon far more keenly.

John Sylvester is the media director of V9 Design & Build and an expert in search engine optimization and web marketing strategies.