Facebook on the Frontline (Part II)

Prashant’s note: The following article was originally published in the latest issue of Correspondent, the bi-monthly magazine of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club. It is reproduced here in full with the permission of the magazine.

by Prashant Rao

How is social media changing the role of today’s correspondent? All I know is that for me, a wire correspondent in Baghdad, my role feels pretty much the same, but the way I carry it out has changed.

On a selfish level, it reminds me that real people – not just my parents – are reading what I write.  At times, it can feel like when a story goes out on to the wire, it disappears into the ether, lost forever. So when I link to a story our bureau has put out (by tracking down if a client has published it on their website), and other people respond on Twitter or re-Tweet the link, it is quite gratifying. For the vast majority of my nearly two years here in Iraq, that is all I’ve done on Twitter – posted links to articles our bureau has written, and hoped someone has found them interesting.

On a practical level, it helps me better inform others. During Iraq’s “Day of Rage” on February 25, I started tweeting comments that protesters had made to me and my colleagues that didn’t make our story, as well as little details that inevitably had to be cut out of a 700-word article about nationwide demonstrations that left people dead.

My reasoning was, “Well, I find this stuff fascinating, maybe someone else will, too.” As it turned out, quite a few did. The night before the protests, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said their organisers were Saddam loyalists and Al-Qaeda insurgents, but one demonstrator told us that she and her friends were just “nationalists” who were protesting because electricity and water provision in Iraq are awful and corruption is rampant. So I tweeted that, and more than a dozen people re-tweeted it to their followers.

That is not by any means an overwhelming number, but I think it was at least a little useful. At one point, a senior government source told us, on condition of anonymity, that the Prime Minister had asked for a particular governor’s resignation, but the governor had refused, a detail that could be found towards the end of our ongoing wrap on events. I thought, for Iraq-watchers, it was interesting, so I tweeted it, and it got a few re-tweets too. Throughout the day, I tweeted bite-size pieces of information that would keep people who were interested in the story abreast of the main details – how many protesters were at the demonstration site? What kinds of groups were taking part? Were the protests violent?

On the other side, it can also be a useful tool for gathering information – I follow Iraqis and other reporters, foreign and domestic, covering Iraq, and some of their comments can lead to interesting stories, though of course only when checked and verified. For example, one day I heard that one of Iraq’s most senior clerics was heading to London for medical treatment. An Iraqi I follow, who is part of an Islamic studies foundation in London, tweeted that he would be meeting the cleric at Heathrow airport. So I e-mailed him and asked if an AFP photographer in London could tag along to take some pictures of the Ayatollah, who rarely ventures out in public in Iraq. He agreed and within a few hours, we had the shots.

Of course, it is not all rosy – countless claims and accusations were flying around on Twitter during the February 25 “Day of Rage” protests in Baghdad, few of which we could verify or substantiate. I couldn’t count the number of times people tweeted about gunfire and deaths in provincial cities, but when we checked with our stringer network, they reported nothing of the sort. Much like in real life, you quickly learn which sources give you information worth following-up and which do not.

Other reporters here use Twitter in still more interesting ways: For example, when Kelly McEvers of National Public Radio got an interview with General Lloyd Austin, the commander of US forces in Iraq, she sent a tweet to her followers to see if they had any questions for him. Martin Chulov of The Guardian, nominally a Baghdad correspondent but someone who was in Bahrain and Libya in February, tweeted his progress through Libya to Benghazi, and on towards Tripoli.

As with all things that involve attaching your name to something in a public forum, I stick to a few self-imposed ground rules.

One, I never tweet my location or where I will be at any given time. I work in Baghdad. This needs no explanation.

Two, I make sure I know who pays the bills. It almost goes without saying, but my first and main priority is the AFP wire. That’s the reason I’m in Baghdad. The tweets, at least for me, are window-dressing (though for some, they are far more important – for example: Michael Yon, who runs his own blog and funds all his work in conflict zones via private donations). If I’m going to tweet something and it has to do with Iraq-related news, I want to make sure it has either already been put out on the wire, or there was insufficient space in a story to put it in. This was true of everything I tweeted on February 25.

Three, I apply the same standards of sourcing on Twitter that I have for the wire. If my credibility in the realm of social media lies in the fact that I am a Baghdad correspondent for AFP, then why would I apply different standards in the Twitter-verse to those I would apply in an AFP office?

Four, I stay on topic. There are any multitude of people tweeting about Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and all manner of other countries and subjects, and (most of) the ones I follow are better informed than me on those subjects. This is perhaps better labelled as guidance than a rule, given I break it so often, whether it be with tweets about the cricket world cup, the NBA, or just non-Iraq related things I find funny or interesting.

Through it all, I am taking small steps, little by little, into this world of social media – you perhaps already know what has happened to Octavia Nasr and Nir Rosen, two journalists who made ill-advised comments on Twitter, thus blighting a life’s work and leading to them being fired and/or resigning. Their experiences are what have me constantly on my toes, and as a result I read and re-read my tweets in much the same way I obsess over the copy I file.

How much does social media, then, change our role? I think, so far, not much. Through the February 25 demonstrations, much as I do in real life every day, Twitter required that I sift through and make decisions on who was credible and who was not and what information was actually worth following.

My follower count shot up, as did those of Kelly and another colleague, Serena Chaudhry of Reuters. There were countless others who were tweeting about the protests, making claims of questionable authenticity, whose counts did not.

We still have to deliver objective, contextualised news that informs our readers about far-flung parts of the world. People still want factual foreign reporting from sources they trust. The nuts and bolts do not seem to me to have changed. All that’s changed – for now – is how we deliver.

Related posts:

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  3. What is Tumblr? (Part II)
  4. Building up a Tumblr
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