The social media phenomenon is said tohave played a major role in historical uprisings last year. It is credited for helping to set off the Arab Spring, or Arab Awakening, as the wave of protests that started in Tunisia, before spreading to Egypt and Libya, is known. Social media was used as tool to organise the demonstrations, which ultimately saw the death of long-time Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
How did one of the world’s most well-known broadcasters handle the social media revolution in 2011? Fienie Grobler spoke to Tony Maddox, the executive vice president and managing director of CNN International.
Below is an edited version of his answers.
1. How has the rapid rise of social media impacted on CNN programming and how has CNN adapted to this?
Social media has become an accepted part of the news gathering process in an incredibly short period of time; but it has also provided an integral dynamic to many stories. From rioters in London and Birmingham through to revolutionaries in Cairo and Tripoli, people are using it to communicate with each other, and we’re now seeing institutions like the police using it to their own ends.
Social media has been a key ingredient in the seismic changes we’ve seen across the Middle East and as journalists we cannot ignore this, or fail to be excited by it. But equally I think we have to be wary about how we use it. Social media is no substitute for professional journalism, and in many ways its increasing prominence makes the rigour and experience of professional newsgathering organisations more important than ever.
So I think our approach at CNN is the same as it has always been, in that we look to as many sources as possible to get the fullest picture of the story for our audience, and that includes social media. But as always we call on the skill, training and professionalism of our editorial staff to ensure we give a full and factual account of a story. We also use social media to communicate with our audiences – our journalists use Twitter enthusiastically and many have tens of thousands of followers – and we use it, alongside other media, to break stories.
CNN’s iReport, which is our citizen journalism platform, has close to a million registered contributors and submissions from every country on the planet, and the latest version launched last month is a social platform in itself.
Ultimately I think we’re at the forefront of using social media in the news, but in a way that serves our audiences as they would expect and want from CNN.
2. What is CNN’s social media policy for journalists on how to handle the blurry lines of commenting about a story on a social networking site, versus reporting objectively on the same story?
Our policy for social media use is much the same as other areas of broadcast. Our journalists are trained to report factually and present what they’re finding in the right way. I think everyone understands the importance of thinking and checking first before using tools like Twitter, and people also understand that they’re representing CNN when they use these tools.
3. Does CNN consider social media as a marketing tool, or does its citizen journalism potential pose a threat to newsrooms? Why do you say so?
We use social media to inform our audiences about what we’re doing, to help us break stories, let them know what’s coming up on air and to interact with them. There are a number of official CNN Twitter accounts and our PR and marketing teams, as well as editorial teams from news and feature programming, use many forms of social media to build relationships with our audiences. I don’t think citizen journalism is a
threat to a newsroom at all, because if anything it amplifies the need for professional journalists. We curate, check and filter stories to make sure our audiences can trust what they see and hear. Citizen journalism is exciting and important, but audiences want facts and it’s up to organisations like CNN to ensure that’s what they get.
4. Do you think social media is more or less of a threat to broadcasting media, as opposed to print media, and why do you say so?
I think all media are constantly evolving and no one can ignore change. What’s important is to keep step with our audiences, and that goes for print and broadcast media. Tablets, for example, are incredibly exciting and offer enormous potential for consumption of both text and video, but they’ve been around for a very short space of time and few predicted their success.
People talk about television as if it is a dying medium, but look at the way people have embraced flat screen TVs and HD, how they invest in home cinemas, and look at developments in areas such as 3D. If anything, television is thriving right now and that bodes well for broadcast media.
But CNN has a very strong presence on tablets and other mobile devices, we devote a lot of time to our online services and we are both watchful and excited about developments in media. Social media is part of that, but it’s not the only part. As for print, personally I still enjoy sitting down with a newspaper or magazine in my hands, but I use a tablet and my mobile too; they’re not mutually exclusive.
5. Has CNN found a way to increase advertising spend on its online platforms, and if so, how?
Online is a strong growth area for advertising at CNN, but it is part of the mix. I think that what we offer advertisers is a fully integrated platform, and that is something important and distinctive. Advertisers know that CNN can put them on every screen, wherever their audiences are, and that’s a big advantage for us. We’re constantly looking at ways to improve in that regard, and to make sure we keep pace with what our audiences want.
But what’s most important is the strength of our editorial product. Advertisers want to be associated with CNN because of our heritage and integrity, and because of the quality of our programming; those aspects will always be the most important thing for us.
Fienie Grobler is the deputy news editor of the South African Press Association (Sapa).