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Journalists urged to ‘focus on content, not algorithms’ at Dubai summit

Reliability of information on Twitter and Facebook is still a thorny issue, “storytelling in age of social journalists” panel finds

Published: Updated:

Mainstream TV stations and newspapers are increasingly relying on social media in covering Middle Eastern conflicts, a conference in Dubai heard on Wednesday.

But reliability is still a thorny issue when using such sources of information when reporting on Syria or the rise of ISIS, panel members at the Social Media Summit 2015 said.

In a debate about ‘Storytelling in the age of social journalists’, experts in the field discussed the difficulty faced by the media in reporting news quickly, but accurately.

Abeer al-Najjar, Assistant Professor at the American University of Sharjah, said the region’s media is depending more on sites like Twitter and Facebook for newsgathering.

“There is more and more dependency, especially when the area is volatile. You can’t be everywhere at the same time,” she said.

“The so-called Syrian revolution was a great challenge… There was a lot of demand for footage and information.”

Traditional and social media can complement each other in an “empowering” way – but the mainstream press is still learning how to adapt to the new internet age, the academic added.

“We haven’t reached the top of the learning curve,” she said. “There is a lot of concern as to the credibility.”

Race for speed, accuracy

Fellow panelist Faisal J. Abbas, the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya News, agreed about the “importance of mining social media for stories”.

But the process of finding stories on social sites is not so different from that during the golden age of printed newspapers, before the advent of the internet, Abbas noted.

“Thirty years ago you probably received an anonymous phone call or an envelope in the newsroom with a news leak… Now it takes the format of someone posting something on social media,” he said.

Yet professional news services must take difficult calls on whether text, photo and video postings are reliable – as repeating this information on mainstream channels can give it a “seal of approval”.

“In newsrooms it’s always a race between accuracy and getting it out first,” he said.

‘Extra homework’

Caroline Faraj, Dubai Chief Operations Director at CNN Arabic, was the third panel member taking part in the discussion at the Social Media Summit, which was hosted by the Middle Eastern social-networking site AreebaAreeba.

She said that, while there is an urge for mainstream media to report ‘trending’ stories quickly, care should be taken in such situations.

“We used to depend on our field reporters, our contacts, sometimes news agencies, or somebody who is in the field,” said Faraj.

“Now you are also considering the social media. But you need to do extra homework … you need to check the authenticity of it.”

Given that is sometimes not possible, media outlets such as CNN include disclaimers that social-media footage has not been verified, Faraj added.

‘Stop worrying about algorithms’

Abbas said journalists should not get so distracted by the internet age that they lose sight of their main role: storytelling.

And this, he said, is where the professional media still stands apart from the millions of tweeters, Facebook-posters and Instagram addicts.

“Stop worrying about cheating Google, stop worrying about algorithms, story worrying about keywords etcetera. Just do your job. And our job as journalists is to produce quality content,” he said.

“There isn’t a better time for us as journalists, as professional storytellers, than now. Essentially, nothing has changed apart from the tools.”