Social media is changing the face of news coverage

THERE have been two worldwide major media events since my last column that you cannot have failed to have seen.

The first was the royal wedding and the second, the death of Osama Bin Laden.

Both were fascinating stories for very different reasons and both garnered worldwide media coverage.

What was interesting though was the role that social media played in that media coverage.

Over 400m people watched the royal wedding on a dedicated YouTube channel. Not as high as the estimated 2bn television audience but still staggering.

During the service, according to Facebook, its users were posting 47 updates a second. As I watched the television coverage, on both channels correspondents pushed their own twitter accounts (I don’t think the BBC or ITV had thought about keeping it to an official profile that they owned rather than a following that moves with the presenter).

As Philip Schofield constantly was tweeting live on TV and reading tweets I sat and wondered if Twitter especially had gone mainstream.

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That was of course until the events of last Sunday night.

The death of Osama Bin Laden by American Special Forces has now been touted as Twitter’s CNN moment.

That refers back to the first Gulf war two decades ago when the cable networks 24 hour news coverage brought 24 hours news to mainstream attention and arguably changed the face of news reporting.

The story was first unofficially broken by Sohaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual on Twitter) who inadvertently tweeted the whole raid as he lived nearby, commenting on helicopters and explosions and then the now famous “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who live blogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”.

It was then done more officially by Keith Urbahn, the former chief of staff for Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary under President George W Bush.

“So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.” he wrote at 10.25pm EST Sunday evening.

After that it went round the world, within 35 minutes by 11pm EST, Bin Laden news was being tweeted at the rate of 5,106 tweets per second.

It’s this speed of breaking news that is the real change. In 1952 it took 2 days for news of the Lynmouth flood disaster to break.

By 1988 the Piper Alpha explosion was reported an hour after it happened. By the time the plane landed on the Hudson River in NY in Jan 2009 it was reported live.

However breaking news is not journalism. That is the skill of checking the facts, verifying and adding context and comment.

Some commentators have said that news no longer breaks, it now tweets. Certainly the way major news breaks and is first shared may now have changed forever but true insightful, analytical comment on the stories will always come from proper journalism not retweets.

I will however leave the last word though to Sohaib Athar who after his now famous tweet followed with: “and here come the mails from mainstream media....sigh”.

Tim Youngman is head of digital marketing for Archant