What is Social Media?
YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, and blogs are all examples of social-media sites. What defines them as social media? They’re platforms that allow people to express themselves and interact online. Some social-media sites, like Facebook, offer varying degrees of privacy; others are largely public. As a reporter you can take advantage of both private and public forums to inform and illustrate your reporting.
[Note: Anyone can use social media: regular people, professional organizations, the government, mainstream media, etc. The New York Times, for example, has many excellent blogs; and the U.S. government tweets about H1N1. This "guide," however, focuses on content created on social media by regular citizens -- which is sometimes called "user-generated content" or "UGC."]
Why Should I Care About Social Media?
Social media can improve your reporting in two main ways. It can suggest leads — both for story ideas and for potential interviews. It can also illustrate stories directly — with text, photos, video, or audio. Social media may allow you to pinpoint ideas/content more quickly than phone or fieldwork.
The key to using social media well is deploying the same sharp editorial skills you do in traditional reporting. There’s an infinite amount of junk online, but there’s also a surprising wealth of insightful commentary from ordinary citizens. It’s not necessarily better than professionally produced content; it’s simply often an excellent alternative.
Blog posts, videos, podcasts, and even photos can suggest story and/or interview ideas. The trick is figuring out how to find those leads. It’s easiest if you cover a particular beat and have the time to establish a stable of your favorite bloggers, videographers, etc. — then you can check in on them and cultivate them as you would any source. But even if you’re new to a beat, or doing a one-off story, you can scour social media pretty efficiently for ideas.
If you already have a story idea and want to illustrate it in some fashion — with quotations, photos, videos, etc. — you can use targeted searches to find good relevant content online.
Some content on social-media sites is copyrighted — so you need explicit permission to use it — but much of it is freely available to use with attribution. Some (especially photos) is explicitly licensed with a creative-commons license. Some is in the public domain (e.g., created by the government and therefore freely usable). And for some — like YouTube videos or blog-post excerpts — there seems simply to be an expectation that the content will be embedded or replicated (again, with attribution).
You do have to watch out for material ripped from copyrighted sources like newspapers and then passed off as original content. Another possible tripwire: user-generated content can be intentionally or accidentally misidentified. So just because a photo is labeled “Bitterroot mountains in 2004″ doesn’t mean it’s really showing the Bitterroots or that it was taken in 2004. Vetting all material you find online is key! Most social-media sites make it pretty easy to contact the creator of a video, photo, etc. — and of course you can deploy all of your usual fact-finding talents.
Find Blog Posts
Once the results pop up, you have to do a lot of weeding. Often you can avoid marketing/spammy sites just by glancing at a post’s URL or excerpt. You’ll get faster at finding good posts very quickly once you start to recognize reliable bloggers and interesting themes for your story.
You can also find good quotes in comments on posts, photos, videos, and audio, so don’t forget to check them.
The social-bookmarking site Delicious can be an additional place to find interesting posts (or photos/video/audio, for that matter). It does, however, also point to lots of professional media. For information on how to use Delicious, check out our guide.
Flickr is probably the best place to find creative-commons-licensed photos. (It also offers short creative-commons-licensed videos — see next section.) Some Flickr photos are copyrighted, but many have some form of a cc license — which allows you to use them freely with attribution. It’s easy to find cc-licensed images: just go to Flickr’s advanced search page, type in your search terms, and click the “only search within Creative Commons-licensed content” box. You can also limit your search to photos only.
Sprixi is another useful way to find cc-licensed images. It draws from Flickr and other sites.
Note: Some creative-commons licenses allow you to modify an image — e.g., by cropping; others request that you use it as is. You have to check for each individual photo.
YouTube, Vimeo, and Flickr are probably your best sources for video. Each site is searchable with keywords. Flickr’s advanced search page allows you to limit your search to videos and/or to cc-licensed content.
Flickr vids are short and indicate whether they’re copyrighted or licensed with creative commons. YouTube and Vimeo don’t indicate how the videos are licensed — but it seems to be accepted practice to embed them (as always, with attribution).
Note: Some creative-commons licenses allow you to modify/repurpose a work; others request that you use it as is. You have to check for each individual video.
Amateur podcasts are often longer than videos, and if they don’t have a transcript, they can be time consuming to evaluate.
How to Attribute
The key elements of attribution: the creator’s name and a link to the original piece. If a piece is expressly licensed via creative commons, link to the exact type of creative-commons license used. It’s nice to link embedded image/video files to the original, too.
Sometimes photographers/videographers/etc. will ask that you notify them — either via email or in a comment on their work — if (and where) you use their content. They might also request a link to blogs or websites they run.
Any extras are bonuses (e.g., original pubdates, short creator bios, etc.).
Three Main Points to Remember
1. Always attribute the work — with links — to the original creator.
2. Watch out for unattributed material ripped from copyrighted sources like newspapers.
3. If you’re using copyrighted material, get permission first, and indicate in the attribution that you received it.
FluPortal’s Blog Posts about Social Media
Click here to see all of FluPortal’s blog posts that discuss some aspect of social media.