The meteoric rise of social media has brought tremendous change to the American media landscape over the last decade. Many viewers are consuming more media than ever through their mobile devices and on social networks. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2017 (link), 51 percent of those surveyed in the U.S. now get news from social media. That’s a five percent increase from the 2016 report and that figure is double what it was in 2013.

The changes in America’s media consumption habits will keep coming if the major social networking platforms have their say. In fact, just this month, a Facebook executive said she expects users’ news feeds to be “all video” in five years (link). The news industry is being pushed hard to keep pace with new changes and innovations and reach their audience wherever they reside online. But what do these changes mean for the people behind the cameras?

We asked six professionals at news stations large and small around the country about their opinions on social media and how it has affected the way news is produced, consumed, and shared. Their answers highlighted the importance of ethical journalism in a media world where journalists need only a smartphone and a good signal to broadcast live from the field for a potential audience of millions on Facebook.

The interviewees included Travis Mayfield, the Director of Digital Strategy for KCPQ in Seattle; Ryan Leckey, a reporter for WNEP in Scranton; Mike McClain, the Vice President of News for WAGA in Atlanta; Christie O’Sullivan, a Digital Producers for WTVT in Tampa; Emily Sutton, a meteorologist for KFOR in Oklahoma City; and Dan Carlin, the Vice President of Programming, Research, Creative Services and Public Affairs for WNYW and WWOR in New York City.

Below are some of their responses to our questions, edited down for clarity and brevity.

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1. How has the rise of social media changed newsrooms and local TV stations?

Ryan Leckey/WNEP: “It totally has changed newsrooms in so many different ways. I think for the positive, and the reason for that is, I think finally we have a platform where we can engage with our customers (a.k.a., our viewers) to find out what’s really important to them. It really gets a pulse on all of the communities we serve and, often times, [we] get some of the best story ideas [from that]. We can kind of peel back that curtain and tell people what’s going on in their neighborhood — whether it’s good or bad.”

Mike McClain/WAGA: I think the main difference with social and the main value of social that I get as a news manager would be the instant feedback that we get from users. I started in this business in 1980 and I’ve seen a lot of technological advances over the years, and seen a lot of ratings books come and go. I’ve seen news managers make changes here or changes there to television and digital products […] but having a user be able to comment immediately or send a message to us via social media is groundbreaking. It has really changed the way an assignment desk works.

“As an old assignment editor, I would come in and I would be responsible for looking at the faxes and taking the phone calls. Then, I would try to decide whether a story tip was valuable or just someone who wanted to talk to someone. The Facebook messaging function and being able to DM people on Twitter, have become the main source of how we receive story tips now. Social media tips have surpassed email and phone calls. Facebook and, in particular, the Facebook groups that are popping up around the country in communities that are hyper-local and hyper-focused on community issues, those groups are a gold mine for story ideas for digital and television.

“I have a group here in Atlanta, that when something breaks, someone will put a post up, and they’ll tag me on a link. I’ll go in and message the person who’s involved, and frequently, within 30 minutes we may have a story set up that maybe we didn’t know about an hour ago.”

Christie O’Sullivan/WTVT: One of the biggest ways that social media has changed our industry in news gathering. We can reach out to sources that we didn’t have access to before without having to go through all the motions of tracking down phone numbers or finding people. […] Now, we can just reach out directly to people and it has provided us so much more material. We now have video of the scene in real time from people who are there. Everything is instant.”

Dan Carlin/WNYW & WWOR: I think social media is a third television station for us. We have Fox 5, we have My 9, and then we have our stations’ social media pages. As a TV station, we air news, we air entertainment programming, we air all different types of genres. And the way that I like to look at social media is the same way as I look at TV stations: We’ll do news, we can do entertainment, fun little pieces, hard posts, but everything has to be engaging to the user. The news department is involved and [when it comes to] social media, specifically our digital producers, but we have people from other departments that participate. Creative services has a very important role, community affairs [department] helps out every so often. It’s different departments contributing to social media – it’s not just news at this television station.”

2. Do you think journalism is better or worse due to social media?

Travis Mayfield/KCPQ: “That’s a complicated question. I think that the tenets of journalism haven’t changed and I think that the tools that social media offers can help enhance better storytelling and a better connection with the audience. But I think that you have to continue to live the ideals and the ethics [of journalism] and have a bit of a thicker skin when you live in a world of direct feedback. You have to use it for good and not let it use you for evil.”

Mike McClain/WAGA: Absolutely better. The consumer has more power. We are no longer just people here deciding what’s important to others, and that makes me feel good inside as a journalist and as a consumer of media — that we get that instant feedback and the users have the power. They have the power to consume, tell us they want more, or to turn away and push away when they see something they don’t like. I think it also forces us as broadcasters and digital publishers and journalists to make sure that we are presenting many sides of any story. As we’ve seen in the last six months, there’s a lot of attention given to making sure that a lot of voices are heard. It’s just not what journalists want to distribute.”

Christie O’Sullivan/WTVT: “I don’t think necessarily that it’s better or worse. There are definitely more tools out there for journalists to have at their disposal for news gathering. But, I do think that it’s different and I do think that it requires a lot more care on our part as journalists because it’s a little bit harder to sift through some of the noise sometimes. And we have to make sure that we’re asking the right questions, that we’re getting the right permissions on material, that we’re doing our due diligence to basically flesh out a story. It used to be we would hunt down the facts. Now we have so many people just putting material and information out there, and we have to really dig in to find who’s credible and verify the information before we put it out there. We have a responsibility to be more responsible now.”

3. What was the first major story you covered in which you remember social media having a big impact?

Emily Sutton/KFOR: “I think of May of 2013. In Oklahoma, that’s when we had two violent tornadoes within a two-week time span. We had the Moore tornado on May 20, and we had the widest tornado on record, the El Reno tornado on May 31. For Oklahomans to have two deadly tornadoes within a week and a half apart, social media turned into a place for therapy – [not just] a source to put out information and to get information. I mean, immediately after, people [were using social media] trying to find loved ones or when they found debris 100 miles away. They were able to use Facebook to give family photos back to tornado victims. […] It kind of became therapeutic for everyone to share their stories and find ways to connect and help each other.”

Travis Mayfield/KCPQ: “It was a number of years ago, when I worked at the ABC affiliate here in town. I had recently joined Twitter and we had a mass police shooting where […] A man walked into a coffee shop and killed four police officers and then he was on the run for a number of days and it was a massive all out manhunt here in western Washington. It was a huge story. That was the first time that I actually started getting tips from people about raids that were occurring and where police were. That was the first time that I began to realize the power of that direct connection to an audience when it comes to a breaking news situation and when it comes to connecting with an audience. We were covering [the story] for the audience in real time on that platform and then, in turn, get reaction and immediate tips about where things were going and where raids were happening from the audience.”

Christie O’Sullivan/WTVT: I would say the search for the Boston bombing suspects. Social media created a big challenge when we were covering [the story] when the search was happening overnight, because anybody who had a Twitter account and a scanner thought that they were journalists at the time. It’s so dangerous now with social media in that regard, because during breaking news, you have a lot of people tweeting out information that could be dangerous to the officers. They’re giving away tactical information. They’re giving away unconfirmed information. Which, we all know as journalists, you can’t tweet out scanner traffic — you can’t report scanner traffic. We all know that, but [most] people don’t know that. So, the big challenge for us was to cover it without all the [unconfirmed] information that was floating around. […] You have to be very careful.”

4. What’s a story you’ve seen in your career that couldn’t have been told without social media?

Ryan Leckey/WNEP: “Now, it was not my story, but it did happen in our newsroom. There was a runaway blimp — like a hot air balloon […] and there were reports of all this activity in one part of our viewing area, but nobody really knew what was going on. Well, viewers started writing and tagging our WNEP pages on Facebook and saying, ‘Hey, you’re not going to believe it. This huge blimp just crashed into the woods behind you.’ So then, that was sort of the activation – like, ‘Alright, go team news!’ Because this is more than just, ‘Oh, it’s a balloon from a birthday party floated away.’ Eventually, there were all these conflicting reports. Like, ‘Oh, I spotted the balloon here in the air.’ Then, all of a sudden, boom! It was a big blimp. The way we were able to really tell the tale of what happened is because of social media, people’s pictures coming into our newsrooms.”

Emily Sutton/KFOR: “We had a fire in our station one morning. We had an electrical unit that caught fire and it happened at 3:45 a.m. and we go on the air at 4 a.m., so our power was out and we couldn’t go on the air. So, we did the newscast on Facebook Live and we went live on Facebook until we went back on the air, I think at 5:30 a.m. The fire department came in and we had to evacuate, so we did the newscast Facebook Live outside and covered our own story on Facebook. That’s something that couldn’t have happened five years ago. We wouldn’t have been able to do anything before [Facebook Live].”

Mike McClain/WAGA: Well, the biggest story in Atlanta in the past six months was the fire and collapse of the I-85 interstate bridge. That story had such a wide impact on everyone in the entire market. Obviously, everyone shared dramatic pictures of the collapse and our Sky Fox 5 helicopter was live over the scene when the bridge collapsed. Seeing that happen live, both on television and on social media, was shocking. People began to realize this is a major thing and is going to impact traffic for months. ‘My daily routine is going to change.’ I think that was a shared experience through the entire market, and I think watching it live on Facebook was a big deal for a lot of people. I would have to say that ranks right up there.”

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We have much more from our interviewees in Part Two, in which we discuss what they miss about the time before social media’s rise as well as how social media can be improved, both by and for, journalists.

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