5 ways journalists can use social media for on-the-ground reporting in the Middle East

Social media is a particularly powerful tool in the Middle East, where in some countries it gives people a way to express themselves. That expression takes many forms, from social protest, to political criticism, to sharing news and information.

Most recently, groups such as the Israeli Defense Force have been using social media to seek support and participation as the Gaza Strip conflict escalates.

Sometimes major news happens in people’s backyards and they send out extremely valuable tidbits of information in real-time. For journalists who can’t be everywhere or be there to see it firsthand, the hyper-active social media stratosphere in the Middle East is an invaluable tool. The explosion of regional use of platforms like Twitter and Facebook started with Arab Spring, and has only grown since then.

Peter Townson, a journalist working with the DOHA Center for Press Freedom in Qatar, says there is one obvious reason that some countries in the Middle East have embraced social media so heartily. “It’s kind of the preferred way for people to get news, because they know there’s no self-censorship involved,” Townson said in a phone interview.

In other countries such as Libya, Lebanon and Israel, Twitter has become one of the fastest and most reliable communication tools among locals and with the outside world. In four instances throughout the past year or so, I used Twitter while reporting on news `happening in Benghazi, Beirut, Tripoli, and Gaza/Israel for The Epoch Times.

In all of these stories, Twitter played an important role — sometimes on multiple levels — by providing the initial lead, demonstrating the general level of interest with related traffic, and making it possible to connect directly with some people broadcasting critical pieces of information. By the time my editors in New York were just waking up, I was already hot on the trail of major news stories.

The catch is, I was on edge about the numerous potential ethical pitfalls of using social media as a jumping-off point for reporting a story. It was something akin to walking down the street, overhearing a conversation and then trying to base a news article on it. In the Middle East, word of mouth is king, but even in such an environment, performing ethically should still govern one’s work.

Here are some key points I have learned:

Get as close up to the source as possible

Many times, tweets sent out by people in the Middle East are connected to a political agenda. Other times it is hearsay feeding hearsay. When I use Twitter and Facebook on a story, I get in as close contact as possible with the source of the information I am tracking, and find out as much as possible about them. I want to know what their affiliations and loyalties are.

When reporting on Tripoli, my main source was CNN correspondent Matthew Chance, who was trapped (with a few dozen other journalists) inside the Rixos Hotel but managed to keep tweeting. It was very simple to establish his identity and motivation.

While reporting on the fighting between Israel and Hamas, I (and many others) had access to the Twitter feeds of scores of foreign journalists with major outlets in different locations from Sderot to Gaza City to Tel Aviv. The media affiliations in the bio of their Twitter account, their active status as reporters covering the story, and the steady stream of key information at near real-time speed helped me to paint a more accurate picture from reliable sources.

Because people in this region who broadcast information are sometimes vulnerable, I always make extra reassurances about my identity and affiliations if I get in contact, which ultimately garners more trust and more information from the source.

Fine-tune your ability to size people up

Social media has done a tremendous amount to help people of different backgrounds connect with each other. But technological advances don’t cancel out significant cultural differences. You have to be able to size people up, even when you don’t share a common culture.

While covering a story about how Libyans in Benghazi were organizing to start raising funds to rebuild the U.S. Embassy there, I had one primary contact who was willing to speak with me by phone and connect me with others.

On the phone I took extra time to chat with her and get a sense of her personality (did she seem rational?), her motivations (did she seem angry?) and her state of mind (did she seem hyped up?). It didn’t take long to get the sense of a calm, reasonable person who was genuinely in the midst of the story for personal reasons.

Do extra follow up and verification

Many times, social media buzz related to news happening in the Middle East can be corroborated by early media reports.

My first tip-off to a car bombing in Beirut was an early media report that prompted a search on Twitter. I came across a certain set of photographs that were broadcast on blogs and retweeted. The photos showed the same scene as in the first English-language media report, but were clearly taken by an amateur using a cell phone.

The photographer had ongoing and direct access to his Twitter account, so I reached him in less than 10 minutes. Similarly, after air raid sirens sounded in Jerusalem and at least one bomb exploded, I checked Twitter almost immediately to find out what others were saying. Those tweets led me to some key information for my report on the bombing.

Respect the ownership of photos

Some of the best material from the Middle East comes from people who are literally part of the news. Maybe they participated in a rally or march, took pictures, then tweeted and posted them to Facebook. With the stories about Benghazi and Beirut in particular, the photos were too good and relevant to ignore.

The tricky part came in asking the photographers for reprint permission. Since they were not journalists, asking for the necessary photo credit and caption didn’t make sense. It had to be done, but it was necessary to tread lightly.

Asking if they took the photo and for information to create a caption could trigger suspicion. In the set of Beirut photographs, my editor and I decided to do something The Epoch Times had never done before — we ran the photographer’s “name/Twitter handle” as the photo credit to indicate the source of the photos.

Find the fire when there’s social media smoke

One of the most uplifting stories after the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi (citizens fundraising for a new embassy) was hyped on social media first. It was a good lead, but not enough for a story, and required an extra degree of caution in putting the story together.

A colleague in Washington, D.C. and I worked together to verify that the lead was legitimate, and then backtracked to the social media sources and tested the information. When we were satisfied that it was legitimate, we reported the piece.

Five days into the fighting between Israel and Hamas, several foreign journalists from UK’s Sky News and other outlets had their building hit with rockets. The first hints of what had happened came out on Twitter under the feed #Gaza. The reporters whose offices were hit confirmed the story with reports of the basic facts of the situation through both media reports and short updates on Twitter.

When I heard the air raid sirens in Jerusalem, I ran for cover and then checked Twitter to corroborate information with others in the area and send out my own account of the news. That’s what a reporter’s job has always been about — getting to the bottom of what’s going on and telling an important story. Social media has just accelerated the process.

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