Chapter 55: New media and social media for journalists

Chapter 55:

New media and social media for journalists

In this chapter, we look at new media and social media from two main perspectives – as tools for journalists to use and as ways of distributing their work. We look first at new media then dig deeper into the use of social media by journalists. We finish with an overview of ethics and laws affecting journalists using new and social media.


PLEASE NOTE: This chapter does not give detailed instructions on the use of specific new media platforms or social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram etc. You can get these from the platforms and apps themselves, user support, forums and online instruction sites. Later in this chapter we provide some links to websites and other services providing up-to-date information on new media resources useful to journalists.
Here we look at new media and social media for media professionals, students and citizen journalists within the overall approach of The News Manual. New media and social media have developed numerous terms and word definitions that did not exist in pre-digital journalism. You will find many of these in The News Manual Glossary. Finally, while new media and social media seem relatively new and recent developments for journalists, they are really just extensions of the core principles and practices of modern journalism that have existed for well over 100 year and that we cover throughout the rest of The News Manual.

What are new media and social media?

New Media are usually defined as media of mass communication that came into being because of computers and the internet with the advent of the so-called “digital age”. This contrasts with "old media” (also known as "legacy media" or "traditional media") that pre-date the computer and internet age, even though these old media may now use computers as part of their production or distribution. Websites and social media applications (apps) are new media, newspapers, radio and even television are said to be old media. New media is based on digital technologies whereas old media developed using analogue technologies.

The term new media describes many aspects of digital media including technology, use, content, producers and consumers.

Social media are a sub-set of new media. Whereas new media cover all aspects of new digital media technologies, techniques and platforms, social media are those parts that are developed for and used by individuals and groups to communicate with each other.

Other aspects of new media relevant to journalists, apart from social media (which we will discuss later), include:

  • Mass media. Producers of information such as news and entertainment make it centrally and send it out to many people across society called audiences, listeners, viewers or readers. Mass media are essentially one-way communications – one-to-many – even though they may use various tools and techniques to receive communications back from their audiences, such as feedback, social media, audience surveys etc.
  • Information providers. Many groups and individuals use new media to tell people about things. Government departments and agencies, not-for-profit organisations, academics publishing research results and companies with goods or services to sell or distribute use digital technologies and the internet to send information to their customers, clients or citizens.
  • Distribution: New media can be fast, cheap and effective ways of distributing digital material, such as music, games, videos and useful information. Many people other than journalists produce and distribute their products using computers, mobile devices and the internet. These can range from film studios that stream their movies to customers (such as Netflix, Stan etc) to people who develop teaching materials and make them accessible online, even holding lessons over the internet with their students.
  • Digital production: While perhaps not a category in itself, digital technologies have transformed the ways media content is produced. These include: word processing of text (e.g. Microsoft Word or Excel); digital manipulation of images (e.g. Adobe Photoshop, Facetune); production of movies, video games, cartoon animation, scenery and other graphics by computer-generated imagery (CGI). Digital smart phones with audio recorders, still and video cameras and internet connections have revolutionised the way material for journalism can be gathered and communicated.
  • Information storage and retrieval: Digital technologies have driven a massive expansion of the way data is stored and accessed. Whereas old media stored back copies of their newspapers and broadcasts in paper, microfiche or magnetic tape form, new media can store copies in much more compact digital forms. This also allows more efficient searching and retrieval for journalists researching information in back copies or earlier programs. More than 150 years of The New York Times (13 million articles and photos) have been digitised onto hard drive. Digital storage has also allowed other research sources such as libraries and museums to digitise and store vast collections in very small spaces accessible to researchers via the internet, either free, by subscriptions or by paying one-off fees.

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New media are usually defined as being media that emerged from the development of digital technologies, requiring computers connected by the internet for the distribution of their content. Old (legacy) media such as newspapers and broadcasting have used computers for decades for production, but their distribution/transmission relied on systems developed before the internet, such as trucks carrying newspapers or transmission networks broadcasting radio or television signals on radio spectrum beamed from tall masts.

Many legacy media organisations have adopted new media tools and techniques to extend or adapt their production, coverage and distribution. For example, most newspapers and broadcasters now have online editions on the internet.

As mentioned, the basics of good journalism can be practised in both old and new media.

The following table compares some important elements of old media and new media:

Old (legacy) media

New media

Time-consuming – technologies and processes take time to complete each stage.

Fast – created quickly then distributed (uploaded) almost instantly.

Fixed – once finished the product is difficult to change.

Flexible – product is easily changed and updated.

Quality limits – analogue broadcasts are dependent on signal strength, spectrum availability, interference and receivers. Digital signal quality can drop out easily. Print quality dependant on quality of paper.

Quality – depending on internet speeds and bandwidth, distribution can support high quality audio and visual content.

Linear – requires one-step-after-another-time creation and distribution/transmission.

Non-linear – possible to access elements anywhere within the piece instantly. Audio-visual content can be streamed on-demand.

Single platform – newspapers, radio and television are distinct and not easily combined in production.

Multi-platform - allows formerly separate media (e.g. print and radio) to interconnect and produce new hybrid content.

Complex production – creation process requires many different processes.

Simple to use – if the underlying technology has been well designed.

Specialist - numerous distinct skills are needed in production. Not easy to swap tasks between specialist staff.

Accessible – and easier for producers to share when creating. Also easier to multiskill staff in use.

Expensive – needs big, expensive printing presses, studios, outside broadcast vans etc.

Cheap/free - no need for giant print presses, fleets of vehicles for distribution, up to a certain level

Restricted – to producers with resources, such as finances, licensing etc. However, broadcast radio and TV is more universally available to audiences without internet.

Open – almost anyone can access and use basic technologies. However, does require internet, paid-for data plans and more expensive digital devices for audiences.

Geographically limited – by transport infrastructure, broadcast signal strengths etc.

Global – available anywhere internet access is possible.

Exclusive – not easy for audiences to interact, except for radio phone-ins, newspaper letters columns etc.

Interactive – easy for audiences to comment, submit content and tips or respond to stories.

These are benefits that journalists working with new media should exploit, though the shift away from legacy media has been so fast and overwhelming that it will not be long before the old media ways of doing things are little more than personal memories and social histories. The “new” has quickly become the normal.

Basic principles

There are numerous platforms, apps and techniques for journalists to use when producing their stories, either in print, audio-visually or across platforms. None provides a single answer for every task. You should choose the best platform for each purpose.

And remember, a good journalist will always continue to practise the core principles of the profession, that their work must be fast, fair and accurate:

  • Speed comes from increasing knowledge, confidence and experience.
  • Accuracy comes from constant attention to details and from hard work in finding, checking and re-checking details.
  • Fairness means avoiding bias, treating people equally and giving people the opportunity to express themselves where possible.

For more, see Chapter 57.

And when selecting topics to cover, a good journalist always asks:

  • Is it new?
  • Is it unusual?
  • Is it interesting or significant?
  • Is it about people?

You can find more about this in Chapter 1.

Writing for new media and social media

Before we move on to choosing new media tools to work with, it is worth remembering that basic journalistic principles and practices apply whether you are producing content for pre-digital (legacy) media or for new media and social media.

In particular, as well as considerations about what makes news (see the above), stories still need to be written and presented in clear, concise and interesting ways. It is worth refreshing your memory of what this means in the chapters in Volume 1 of The News Manual, starting with Chapter 3.

Of course, there are some quite different aspects about writing for new media and social media that have become relevant since Volume 1 was first written. These include:

Language and spelling
Take care with language and spelling. Traditional standards of spelling, syntax and grammar have become less rigid with new media, especially social media, where users are often more concerned with sending a brief message quickly without spending much thought on how correct the language is they use. This has been reinforced by texting, where shortforms and symbols often replace words and structured sentences. As a professional journalist, you are expected to comply with the rules of your language, so your message is clear and you are communicating with as many people as possible, not only those who know the shortforms and symbols. You can revise some of the rules about language from Chapter 10 onwards.

Word processing apps generally have autocorrect functions, which “guess” at the word you are trying to type. Most are quite good and even offer corrections to syntax. But they are still non-human algorithms, prone to error and without the innate knowledge of day-to-day language most humans develop. Do not rely on autocorrect to check your copy; to produce professional quality journalism you must check it yourself, word by word and line by line.

Texting errors on mobile device apps
Many people use their mobile devices, especially smartphones, to tap out text messages on small screens with tiny keyboards using their thumbs. This creates countless errors that, in normal person-to-person texts, can still be understood and the errors overlooked. In news writing, do not rely on social media texts for accuracy, spelling or even facts when writing your stories. Check them independently. Where you must include quotes from social media – aside from including a screen grab of the post itself – you can use the terms “sic” in brackets after an error to show the mistake is not yours. But do not use it too often in a single sentence, as this will make the quote seem more unreliable than it is and may seem like criticising the sender. It is better to change their words from quotes to reported speech.

Digital media allow you to provide direct links (also called hyperlinks) to material outside your own story, for example to other websites or media such as videos, illustrations or audio. We have done this throughout the online version of The News Manual, including this chapter. This ability means many readers now expect journalists to show where you got your information from. We look later about the issue of trust in using online sources, but it also has implications for how much you still need to tell your readers about material to which you are linking. Because many readers may not bother clicking on the link, you still need to provide a short summary of what the linked material contains. For example, you can write: “For more on how the Gulf War started, you can read Alan Taylor’s 25th anniversary article in The Atlantic.” [We have disabled the link for convenience.] And don’t forget to link to other relevant stories within your own website where readers might find more information of interest on the topic.

Links and Paywalls
Many media organisations keep their articles behind paywalls, so only readers who have subscribed can access them. If this is the case with an article you are linking to, you should notify your readers: “Content behind paywall” or a similar phrase such as “Access to subscribers only”. There are ways of going round paywalls, but generally it is unethical to advise your readers how to do this.

Headlines, intros and SEOs
Print news media have traditionally used headlines and structured intros to alert readers to the main element of the story that follows. You should still use headlines and structured intros in your online articles, though you also need to consider issues such as how they are  written for search engines to find. Without going into details here, somebody searching for a topic probably uses a search engine such as Google, Bing, Yahoo, Baidu (for Chinese searchers) and the strangely named DuckDuckGo. These search engines scan billions of online sites for occurrences of the search words using algorithms, short specialist programs created by the search engine company’s software experts. The search engine then ranks the result according to the rules of its algorithm. This is not the same as a human being looking for the search words, so websites need to structure their pages like a computer would see them. This is called search engine optimisation or SEO. While traditional headlines are written to attract human readers, online headlines should also be written to attract computer-driven search engines’ SEO. The following article in Shutterstock explains how traditional headlines use strong words to attract readers attention – often by teasing the reader – whereas SEO-friendly headlines must also contain important key words and names.

Keep it short and break it up
Many people now get their news online through their mobile devices, often through smart phones which, despite some larger screens, are still much smaller formats than traditional newspapers and television screens. It is important, therefore, to keep your news stories as short as practicable yet still tell the story well. When you load it onto your website via your computer, use a preview app to check how it reads on a small-screen mobile device. It usually also helps to insert short “cross heads” regularly in the text, to break it up. Cross heads are usually three or four words referring to something coming up in the next section of your story. Make cross heads interesting to attract people to continue reading. Something “What Andy did next” or “How the fight developed” can keep people reading. Photos, video clips and other illustrations can also break up long slabs of online text. But remember, if your reader clicks to play an embedded video clip they often will not return to complete reading your article. Of course, if the video clip is your own that might not bother you so much. If you are building your own website, instruct any links to open the content in a new window or tab instead of exiting the existing window. This is often called a “_blank” option in html code.

Double check – then check again
Always check your work before you press the “Publish” or “Upload” button. Journalists working in large media organisation usually have other people bringing fresh eyes to stories before they are published, but if you work alone or in a small team you may not have those resources. So always check your story thoroughly before publishing and don’t forget to check that all the hyperlinks still work and any video clips play correctly.

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New media tools to produce news

As mentioned, new media can provide both tools for news production as well as platforms for its publication and exchange. In this section we look at new media tools for production.

Choosing the right tools for the job

Your selection of platforms, apps and techniques will depend on what kind of journalism you are producing. The main types include:

  • News reports: These are usually short reports on current or recent newsworthy events or developments.
  • Longform news: Current affairs programs in audio-visual media or news features in print, these usually explore deeper into current events to give more information.
  • Investigative journalism: Digs out information otherwise being kept hidden and then publishes, usually in a longform news format.
  • Backgrounders: These look back beyond the current issue and try to place it in historical context, asking questions like “How did it get to the present situation?”
  • Fact checking: A new journalism discipline, stand-alone fact checkers take already published stories and check them anew for accuracy.
  • Interviews: These may be with interesting or newsworthy individuals or with multiple people as in features, surveys and vox pops. Often they are connected to news events but they can also just be about interesting people.
  • Opinion: These are usually longform items analysing or commenting on contemporary events. It is better to give other people’s opinions than your own. The further these interviews stray from the basic journalistic principles of balance, fairness and accuracy, the less valuable they are likely to be.
  • Arts, culture and entertainment: These articles or programs may not be newsworthy as such but they may be interesting topics about societies or communities attached to news events. Sometimes called “soft news” or even “non-news”.
  • Sport: Coverage can range from news about results or important events to more wide-ranging or in-depth stories about sport, especially players and matches.

Useful new media tools

With the above in mind, the following are the main platforms and techniques to consider as new media production tools. They may be used singly or in combination to add depth or greater detail to the production, called multi-media journalism or multi-platform productions.

The term multimedia (however it is spelt) can be interpreted in two ways. One way means taking a story produced in one medium and presenting it as a complete package in a different medium, for example a newspaper website may have a “multimedia” section where text stories are presented in a different medium perhaps as a video report, an audio interview, podcast or even a photo essay. The second meaning of multimedia is to take elements of different media – such as audio, video and text – and weave them together into a single story. This is usually done in online media, where the different media can be easily combined on-screen.

The following useful new media tools can be used either as different ways of telling a story or as elements in the production of a single story, report or documentary feature.

Eyes, voice, ears and nose (EVEN)
The journalist’s oldest and most important tools. Even in the digital age, there is no better alternative to using your eyes to see what’s happening, your voice to ask questions, your ears to hear the answers and your “news nose” to detect when something smells “fishy”, i.e. rotten or not to be trusted.

Even in an age dominated by audio-visual devices, text still has a useful place as a journalist’s tool, whether it is a pen and paper for making notes, a keyboard for entering information you gather or messaging (such as SMS and email) to ask written questions and receive information.

Warning: Text is one of the most permanent tools in a journalist’s toolbox, which makes it valuable for recording and storing information. However, this may also be a weakness because it can also be accessed by other people to harm you, perhaps to undermine your integrity or find the source of confidential information. Take special care to protect the security of your notes and source materials (including audio-visual material). If information is especially sensitive, consider keeping it secure somewhere secret away from your workplace.

For more, see Chapter 15: Newsroom books and Chapter 60: Sources and confidentiality.

For more detailed practical advice on keeping your work secure, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has published a Digital Safety Kit for journalists.

Messaging and emails:
Electronic text communications such as emails, SMS (short message service) and MMS (multimedia messaging service) are fast and useful forms of asking questions and receiving answers. They are easy for both you and the other person to use and they can form an important permanent record to refer to (though remember the warning above). They also allow you to time-shift some of your work, for example sending text questions to someone out of work hours or in a different time zone for them to answer the next day.

However, they have some disadvantages, the main ones being:

  • The recipient may simply choose to ignore them and you will not know whether this is accidental or on purpose. You cannot, for example, say they “declined to comment”.
  • Emailed or texted questions allow the recipient to spend a lot of time framing their replies which – while more accurate for them – may not actually answer your question or may hide the truth. Email answers can be long and lifeless to use as quotes.
  • They are not as lively and human as a person’s voice either recorded face-to-face or over a telephone, Zoom or Skype call, when you can ask follow-up questions to clarify information. And if someone refuses to talk or answer your questions person-to-person, you can say they “declined to comment”.

Some rules on using messaging and emails as a journalist:

  • Take care with language. Just because they are a shortened form of writing, there is no need to abandon spelling, grammar and punctuation. As a journalist, language is a precious tool; spelling errors, bad grammar and poor punctuation can lead to mistaken meanings and will make the recipient think you are careless or unprofessional.
  • Do not copy (CC) other people unnecessarily. As a journalist you would not shout your questions for one person to a whole group, so don’t do it with texts and emails. Focus on the person you need answers from.
  • Do not blind copy (BC) people without a good reason - it is not polite to the person you are having a one-to-one communication with.
  • Treat text messages and emails as you would any professional written communication. In your first exchange, explain who you are and what you want. Provide full contact details and set the ground rules for future correspondence; if you believe the person you are contacting needs their identity protecting, tell them your conditions. (For more, see Chapter 60: Sources and confidentiality.)

We talk more about using messaging when we discuss social media below.

Audio recording
Whether you are using a dedicated audio recorder or the recorder on your smartphone, hand-held device, computer or studio, audio recordings (and to some extent video recording) have a number of very useful functions in story production. While issues of recording audio for radio are dealt with elsewhere, such as Chapter 48, the uses of new media recording devices include:

  • Making reminders: Once the domain of the reporter’s notebook or scraps of paper, sometimes you will need to make a very quick note to remind you about something. Using, say, a smart phone, this can be just a word, phrase or short sentence, reminding you to do something later, e.g. “Check pronunciation of Kiribati”. (It’s “KI-ri-bas”)
  • Note taking: While notebooks are still essential for good journalism (See Chapter 15), it is sometimes not convenient or even possible to write something down. If you need to make a note of what someone is saying, it might be simpler to record them on your audio recorder. To find specific parts of your notes later, you will have to scroll back and forth on your audio replay, so maybe take note of the elapsed time so you can find them easily again on your counter. Some devices such as digital voice recorders actually have a button you can press to insert digital “markers” at places you think you may want to return to quickly later. As long as you can hear your notes when played back, their technical quality is less important than convenience.
  • Recording actuality: If you want to replay speech or other sounds in your finished production, it is important your recording is the best possible technical quality. This is usually assured in a professional studio, though care must be taken when recording via telephones or internet channels such as Skype or Facetime.
  • Creating a record for legal purposes, in case what was said becomes a matter of dispute. It is usually best to let your interviewee know when you are recording them, both to maintain trust and to abide by the laws. Many countries have laws on when and how you can record other people, usually requiring their consent. See Chapter 60 on eavesdropping.

Podcasting is both a production tool and also a publishing medium in its own right and will be covered separately elsewhere in The News Manual.

Video recording
For most of the television era in the 20th Century, it was unusual for journalists to shoot their own vision. In the field, even small crews consisted of at least a journalist, a camera operator and a sound recordist, so each could concentrate on their own role. For more complex reports they might be accompanied by a producer to look after the arrangements and help the journalist with setting up interviews, formulating questions and finding locations.

Around the start of the 21st Century, to reduce costs television networks began experimenting with video journalism, where the journalist did all the jobs previously handled by the crew, including recording their own vision and sound. These may not have looked and sounded as good as footage shot with an expert crew, but it meant stories could be covered that might otherwise not have been possible, especially in overseas locations. Final production could be completed back in the broadcasting studios.

The development of small handycams and then smart phones with cameras meant that almost anyone can now shoot their own video with sound, making reports available from previously unavailable sources such as ordinary people filming conflicts, crimes and other events not accessible to journalists because of distance or time limitations. Such footage from non-professionals has become an important and increasingly expected part of television coverage until today on-the-spot vision is obvious when it is absent. The killing of African American man George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer in 2020 fanned a spark that became the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and around the world, something that was unlikely to have happened had Floyd’s murder not been videoed by passers-by Darnella Frazier and then posted on the internet.

The challenge for journalists in this era of ever-present video is to tell the story with their own sound and vision in such a way that adds clarity, perspective and context for viewers. This means you can use vision shot by other people, perhaps downloaded (legally) from the internet, but explaining the details accurately and filling in missing vision with video of your own, either shot on location or back in the studio. We talk more about this in the next section on mobile journalism (MoJo).

Still photography
Although still photography is often seen as the poor cousin of video, it has several strengths which make it a useful production tool in any medium or in multimedia presentations.

  • It is quick and simple to take still photographs, whether using a dedicated camera or the camera on a smart phone. Most modern digital cameras/camera phones take reasonably good quality shots and cope automatically with different lighting conditions.
  • Single frames require far less data than a video, so are quicker to take and save to memory and require less time and data to transmit, whether you are sending it to a remote recipient or just to your own computer.
  • A very good still photo has a power of its own the encapsulate meaning and emotion in a memorable way. One great example of this is a black-and-white photograph “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath” taken by American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith in 1971 showing Japanese mother Ryoko Uemura in a bath cradling her severely crippled daughter Tomoko, stricken by mercury poison. The photo both shows the effect of so-called Minamata disease while conveying the love and dedication of Ryoko in caring for her daughter. [Tomoko died in 1977 at the age of 21.]
  • A still photograph allows the viewer to spend as long as they want looking at an image, time to make sense of what they see and to think about that moment in time. Online video clips can often be replayed but a cascade of images can often overshadow the one great frame that encapsulates the story’s essence. A great news photo captures what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”, that single best shot of an event that is unplanned and passing, where the image represents the essence of the event itself.

You can read more about photojournalism in Chapter 46: News Pictures. There is an article on the power of black-and-white news photography in The News Manual Now! And this article in the Columbia Journalism Review makes a powerful case for photojournalism.

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MoJo - mobile journalism

We have spoken above about how to use the unique digital advantages of online journalism, so here we will delve deeper into a special category of new media – mobile journalism, often abbreviated to MoJo.

Mobile journalism developed as a result of two important new media trends. The first was the development of new digital technologies and the move by existing media organisations to greater convergence (or sharing) between their expanding platforms. Television networks began publishing content on their websites, radio started adding extra information through their digital audio broadcasting (DAB) channels, newspapers posted videos on their online editions. This move to multiplatform content meant many of their journalists had to become multiskilled. Newspaper and radio reporters needed to shoot and edit video, TV journalists had to post text stories on websites and social media. As a result of this and cuts in staffing, journalists – even TV reporters - found themselves having to become reporter, producer, camera operator, sound recordist, scriptwriter and editor all on their own.

The second driving force was that the internet opened up the world of communications for ordinary people to do their own reporting using inexpensive, readily-available digital tools such as digital video cameras and smartphone recorders with video and audio editing software to load content onto their own website or social media pages. This was the growth of citizen journalists – people who did the work of journalists without being employed as full-time or freelance media professionals. While many citizen journalists use a range of MoJo tools and techniques to produce complex news and current affairs segments, some do little more than point an internet-connected smart device at an event or at people to livestream it on Twitch, YouTube Live, Facebook Live or similar platforms. Whether you just livestream or go “full MoJo”, there are several issues to consider.

The News Manual is not designed to instruct professional and would-be journalists on specific new media tools and techniques. There are now many such resources available online for that. One of the best free, international sites is the Mobile Journalism Manual, by the not-for-profit Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Another useful reference is a 2017 paper by Panu Karhunen for the Reuters Institute.

We can, however, add some specific comments about MoJo for people considering trying it, either professionally or as a citizen journalist.

Strengths of MoJo

  • It allows journalists to choose the best tools – or combination of tools – for telling a specific story. If visuals are important, you can use video, use audio recording for voices and text for detailed information your audience read and can revisit.
  • Most MoJo tools are readily available, most particularly on modern smartphones, tablets and laptops that have functions to record and edit video and audio, to make verbal and written notes, write stories and then publish online. Good quality smartphones, video cameras and camcorders are not cheap but they are far less expensive than professional quality electronic news gathering (ENG) equipment.
  • Transmission costs can be considerably cheaper. A mobile journalists can use relatively inexpensive internet data services instead of booking expensive microwave or satellite feeds as happened formerly.
  • MoJo tools are easily transportable. Pre-digital, media organisations needed large, expensive offices, newsrooms and studios, often in multiple locations, and might have to send several-member crews long distances with large amounts of equipment. MoJo reporters can carry everything they need in a single backpack and they can work from home or a hotel room. By utilising mobile wireless, journalists are not tethered to a single place – they can be truly mobile.
  • Mobile journalists are always equipped. With small, easily-carried equipment they can capture instant or unplanned events, without needing to summon a full news crew.
  • Devices such as smartphones can be small enough to get vision or audio recordings in tight corners. They are also small enough to hide in a pocket or bag to record in secret – but beware, in some countries this can be illegal.
  • Smartphones, tablets and laptop computers are easier to maintain and repair in the field than specialist recording equipment. They are also easier to get media equipment across borders when covering stories in authoritarian countries.
  • With smartphones ever-present in most societies, MoJo recording devices are less intrusive, more discreet that professional cameras, which can be provocative or intimidating. MoJo journalists don’t stand out so much and so can get closer to their subjects.

Weaknesses of MoJo

  • While technical quality for MoJo can be very good on top-end smartphones, it will not be as good as professional cameras and specialist audio recorders, especially in poor light or noisy environments. You can improve picture and/or audio quality by how you use your equipment, for example with close-ups, lighting, stands, tripods or gimbals etc and by using peripherals such as portable lights or remote microphones with wind shields. However, these will be extra demands on your time on assignment when you need to concentrate on the content, formulating questions, listening to answers for follow-ups, framing the story in your mind and so forth.
  • While mobile journalism has led many newsrooms to shed staff, this can be a false economy if key staff such as a reporter spends too much time in setting up, filing, clearing up and editing instead of reporting. For example, on multi-person TV news crews, the camera operator or sound recordist typically drives to and from assignments, leaving the reporter free to make calls, prepare scripts, file stories and generally keep in touch with his or her editor. Once they are working on their own, mobile journalists must do such tasks one after the other instead of concurrently with their crew.
  • Members of old-style news crews did more than just their own technical tasks. They often gave the reporter valuable knowledge and information about the assignment such as geography, talent etc. Reporters could bounce ideas off their crew, who were usually seasoned professionals able to offer useful advice.
  • Safety may suffer for journalists working on their own instead of with a team who can look after each other.
  • The presence of a full film crew can add status to a reporter in the eyes of government and company officials, smoothing greater access to interview important people. Just using a smartphone may appear less professional. This may change as more people get used to MoJo.

The secret of successful mobile journalism is to use specific tools and techniques – and combinations of them - to balance different demands, especially in areas such as quality of sound and vision, reporting, content, writing, access and safety.

While new media tools and techniques are changing constantly, through them all, however, run some constants for producing good journalism. As well as the principals already discussed – such as truth, accuracy, balance and fairness – there are broader issues to do with professionalism, ethics and the law that we will discuss later in this chapter and elsewhere in The News Manual.

Before leaving this section on MoJo, it might be worth reading this article on the early days of mobile journalism in which ABC Australia’s Jakarta correspondent Gavin Fang gave an insight into the practicalities of being a mobile journalist, which was then also called a video journalist.

Citizen journalists

Although citizen journalism is a separate issue from mobile journalism, MoJo equipment and methods have brought the two closer together. Citizen journalism itself has existed for centuries, since before journalism became a distinct, paid profession. It is when ordinary people become involved in covering events and reporting news for audiences. In the print and broadcasting eras those audiences were reached by media organisations. What new media have done is provide citizen journalists with access to the whole production-to-audience stream never seen since the days of travelling storytellers. Except now citizen journalists can record events and speakers (e.g. participants, witnesses etc) for sharing with audiences online.

In most free press democracies, journalists are not required to be qualified, licensed or to register with authorities (except to be given access to restricted areas), so citizen journalists are free to cover events and issues alongside professional journalists. In authoritarian regimes that restrict the work of news media, citizen journalists have a vital role to play in covering issues and events that would otherwise remain hidden. Most critical stories out of authoritarian nations emanate from citizen journalists publishing their stories online or in overseas media. Without them, the citizens of many countries would be kept uninformed about what their government is doing, except through state propaganda. 

Citizen journalists are therefore important players in new media, by covering issues and events that might not otherwise be brought to light or by adding depth to professional news reporting. Citizen journalists are not bound by professional standards, but if they wish to be treated as credible producers of news and information they should try to work by the codes and standards of professional journalists, as laid out in The News Manual and other texts. You can start exploring these with Chapter 2: What is a journalist?

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Important issues to consider in new media for journalists

Whatever new media tools you use and however you source your content for a story, there are a number of general issues you may need to consider when choosing what to use and how to use it. These include:

Because someone uploads their video to the internet using apps such as YouTube, TikTok or Instagram without a sales contract, this does not mean it is available for everyone to use for free. As you can read in Chapter 73, copyright – the legal right to use or copy something – exists automatically when the thing is created and it belongs to the creator unless they transfer, license, or sell the right to someone else. If you want to use video from the internet, legally you should seek the permission of the copyright owner – usually the person who shot the video initially. You may have to pay them something for using it. However, in journalism there is a legal principal called “fair dealing” which allows you to use small parts of copyright material in your news reports or documentaries under certain conditions. These are explained in greater detail in Chapter 73.

Vision quality should be appropriate to how it will be used. Video image quality that may be acceptable on a small screen or web page becomes less so for today’s high definition (HD) television screens. Despite continuous improvements in smartphone cameras, they are not the same quality as modern professional video cameras and it is unlikely that the person using it has the same level of expertise as a trained professional camera operator. As we discuss elsewhere, when you need vision to illustrate a report you must consider how vital it is for telling the story, especially if it is not technically very good. There are ways of overcoming poor quality video, including keeping the clip short or enhancing it back at the studio. Viewers will tolerate poor quality vision if the story is sufficiently important, but they will get irritated when presented with poor quality vision without justification. If you must use poor quality vision in your report, you should explain how it was shot and why it is poor. For example, shaky amateur footage of a riot might be described as “This was shot by one of the protestors running away from teargas fired into the crowd”.

Providing context
Very few things that happen in life can be properly understood without knowing their context. Knowing the settings in which people do or say things help us understand the things themselves and also provide information on their relevance to other people. If a man says Catholic priests should not marry, it has a different meaning if he is an ordinary person in the street or a cardinal in the Catholic church.

Journalism is all about providing context for the events and issues we cover. Whether we use old technologies or new media, we should still provide context so readers, listeners or viewers can understand them better. One of the strengths of the reporting around the George Floyd killing that helped spark the #metoo civil rights movement in the United States was the ordinariness of his death. It happened during a fairly typical police call-out and was witnessed by ordinary people in the street. The video footage around Floyd’s actual killing by Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for nine minutes made viewers realise how commonplace the killing was, making black people in particular think how easily it could have been them and sparking a mass movement to try to change the system that led to Floyd’s death.

Because Floyd’s arrest was so commonplace, no TV crew would have been called to film it, so it was left to bystanders to capture the vision on their smartphones then share it over social media. Professional journalists then took that amateur footage and built their stories around it, describing the area in Minneapolis where it happened, the struggle of African Americans in areas like it and the poor relations with the police. As separate diverse video clips on social media, it is doubtful whether the footage taken that day would have galvanised the United States in the way structured, contextualised media reports did. They managed to reach into levels of American society that might not have paid attention to YouTube or Instagram feeds.

Alternative storytelling tools
New media technologies have provided a range of storytelling tools previously unavailable to journalists, whether professional or amateur. Not only is the variety far greater but so are different specialist tools at prices ordinary journalists can afford. Less than 50 years ago, most newspapers and magazines were reliant on expensive typesetting machines and massive rotary presses for production, operated by skilled specialists in the composing and print rooms. In the 1970s the first desktop publishing systems began making their way into print media, meaning journalists and editors themselves could do many of the tasks of turning their news stories into type that could then be printed on fast, clean offset presses. Additionally, writing and processing news stories and illustrations electronically meant that content could easily be used the internet in online news media formats.

In the early years of the migration to electronic production, the software itself was limited and expensive to buy. Nowadays, it is so cheap and widely available that almost anyone can afford to publish online, whether using professional desktop publishing (DTP) or website building software such as Adobe Dreamweaver and Photoshop or free “shareware” such as WordPress or Scribus. While traditional newspapers printed on paper or radio programs produced in professional studios still require prohibitively large resources and budgets, the advent of e-readers such as iPads and large screen smartphones mean people no longer needs paper copies or television sets to read or watch their news. We don’t even need dedicated radio sets to listen to news bulletins if we have a smartphone app and adequate internet data. We will talk more about this later when we look at publishing platforms, but for now we are considering the massive diversity of digital production tools available for electronic production and distribution.

This diversity of tools and their relative cheapness means journalists – like anyone – can tell stories using different tools and techniques for each report, article or documentary.

We have mentioned them individually above and the challenge today is to use them together in reports where they are best suited. An online article might deliver much of its information in text, using audio grabs to provide quotes in the speaker’s own voice, illustrate events with video or still photos, provide details using charts or graphs (so-called infographics) and embed social media links to further build the story. The journalist changes from being only a producer of information to being also an assembler of information from other sources and formats.

Using other people’s material

Here it is worth mentioning some of the dangers in becoming an assembler of other people’s information.

We have already discussed the copyright implications of using other people’s material in news production (and we will look at copyright again at the end of this chapter), but there are other, equally serious factors to consider.

Who is the material from and can they be trusted? It is relatively easy nowadays to produce fake information, even fake photos and “deep fake” videos produced using computer-generated artificial intelligence (AI) programs that learn from the original data fed into them and produce an output video that contains, for example, the body actions from one clip with the facial expressions from another, perhaps also mouthing words from another source. The program intelligently mixes them together into a video that is hard to distinguish as fake. Simple software tools such as FakeApp and DeepFaceLab have made the affect available to everyone.

If journalism is to continue to be more than just putting together bits-and-pieces from different sources, journalists need to verify the accuracy of seemingly real footage. This demands checking sources and applying the same standards of authentication as in pre-digital days. If a photo or video clip seems hard to believe, it could easily be a fake or taken out of context so it needs extra verification. (There are online tools such as Google Image Search or TinEye where you can search for images on the internet to find out where they have come from, to assist your verification process.)

You can read more on using trust chains to fight fake news at The News Manual Now!

If you use only information from one side in a disagreement your report will be unbalanced. That is bad journalism practice. But so too is using only what you are given or what is available without any effort on your part.

For example, it has become common practice even in professional newsrooms to use excerpts from social media posts to fill out stories or background people in the news. It is not unusual for visual media (newspapers and TV) to even paste a screen-copy image (screenshot/screencap) of the Facebook or Twitter post into the story, as if to prove it is genuine.

The post may be genuine, but the information it contains may not be. And remember, a person’s Facebook posts or Twitter feeds are usually their opinions of themselves. They are not likely to present a bad image of themselves, so you will get only a one-sided perspective on them or the event they are describing. While there is nothing too seriously wrong with this, your report will be unbalanced unless you include information about them from other sources.

This use of one-sided sources is common in describing people in the news who have died, including in obituaries. And while it is not surprising that a dead criminal’s family may still think highly of him in their posts, it does not help your reader or viewer’s understanding of that dead man to repeat his family or friends describing him as “a great bloke”, “a big soul” or similar. While you are not required to balance good opinions of the dead person with bad opinions, as a journalist you need to put those good opinions in context by what else you include in your story – perhaps something about his criminal history.

While the internet has made information far more widely available than in the pre-digital era, this comes with its own challenges for journalists. And while it is commonly said that material on the internet is forever, that is not true. Material can be deleted or changed, so if you are using the internet to research a story, that page, paragraph, photo or video clip can disappear between your first finding it and when you need it again, perhaps to write more or to show it as evidence of the truth of what you’ve written.

So a golden rule of digital journalism is to make copies of everything you will rely on in producing your stories. You can either download it from the website or make screens captures that you can use and then file for future use.

People, companies or governments that realise they have made a mistake in posting material to their website – either because it reveals misdeeds or contradicts their new position – often delete that content, especially when journalists start “snooping around” for comments on the issue. Sometimes that content is retrievable through archives, but it can be hard to find or even non-retrievable. So the time to make your copy is when you first find it, then keep it somewhere safe. [We discuss security of information in greater detail in The News Manual Now!]

Pressures on journalists
As well as the issues above, there are some more general problems confronting journalists using the internet and new media, including social media.
We have a whole chapter on traditional pressures facing journalists here, but the internet and new media have supercharged them.
The internet is the biggest marketplace in human history and while journalists use it to gather and disseminate news, we do that amidst many, many more people who are trying to promote their own wares – either products or services. The commercialisation of the internet means that large parts of it are not what they seem or what their users claim they are. Journalists must bear this in mind when they gather news and information through online websites and social media platforms.
It is understandable that companies and individuals wanting to sell their products or services will not always tell journalists the truth or give unbiased information, but this pressure on journalists to choose their side against another reaches across most societies, carried via the internet.
In politics, for example, surveys in Australia show that many citizens have long ceased trusting politicians, even though as society’s leaders they are the people to whom citizens should be able to look for guidance in moral and ethical conduct. Both democracies and authoritarian regimes have become almost insensitive to political lies, mistruths and exaggerations, so much so that an Australian independent federal MP, Zali Steggall,  felt driven to introduce a law to make lying illegal in political advertising. Experts said that while there are laws against lying in commercial adverts, there is no such prohibition in the realm of politics.

The lesson for journalists is not only to mistrust unverified information on the internet but to resist those with the economic, political or star power to try to influence us otherwise.

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As mentioned above, the new media age has made a host of new technologies available for media producers and their audiences. It has provided new tools for journalists and new platforms for readers, listeners and viewers. With so much to choose from, it has also complicated the field for everyone. Producers feel the need to keep up with the latest tools and techniques to remain creative and competitive while audiences can be swamped with choice and sometimes overwhelmed by the seemingly relentless torrent of content washing over them. We will examine these issues elsewhere when we discuss what makes people choose one sort of content over another.

Here we will try to simplify these issues for journalists, both those who have started their working careers in the new media age as well as those older journalists who began in old media and are having to transition into new media ways of working for different audiences.

As discussed above, old (or traditional or legacy) media has usually been limited to print, analogue broadcasting and films shown in cinemas (movie theatres). They have included newspaper and magazines, radio and television and movie films, each delivering a relatively “fixed” amount of content by transporting their products over land, sea or air to readers or over wireless or cable transmission networks to the radio and TV sets of their listeners and viewers. In earlier times, many people received their news from newsreels, news and current affairs programs on celluloid reels of film projected in cinemas, often before the start of the main feature film. By the 1960s and 70s these had almost entirely died out, replaced by television bulletins in people’s homes.

While broadcasting does have some flexibility and allows journalists to change their content between bulletins or programs, paper-based newspapers and magazine content cannot be changed once the printing presses have finished, until the next edition is published.

New media platforms are usually much more flexible and can be better tailored for specific kinds of news or for particular segments of their audiences. New media platforms can include:

  • Digital radio and digital television: Utilising what is effectively extra signal space (called bandwidth) from digital transmission, broadcaster organisations can either divide their allocation of spectrum to provide more channels for viewers or listeners, provide a better quality signal and/or transmit additional data such as text. Journalists working for digital TV or radio should be prepared to produce text, audio and/or video material.
  • Smart TV: This uses digital television technology connected to the internet and/or the viewer’s wi-fi network to provide extra services and interactivity between the broadcaster/internet services such as voice commands, on-demand programs, apps and telecommunications such as Skype. Again, journalists may need multimedia skills to produce material for smart TVs, though much of their content may come from combining or supplementing existing material from separate media.
    NOTE: Digital broadcasting technologies are not available in many countries and even in technologically advanced nations such as Australia, digital television is not universally available and terrestrial digital audio broadcasting (DAB+) is only available in nine Australian cities in 2021, though some additional digital radio services are also available over internet connections.
  • Web sites: Most newspapers and magazines are now also available over the internet (in “online editions”) either free or for a subscription, behind what is called a “paywall”.  They can be read on computers, tablets (e.g. iPads) or smart phones, though readability may not be very good on the screens of smaller mobile devices. Many newspapers and magazines also produce “digital editions” (also known as “facsimile editions”) which are delivered over the internet and look exactly like the pages of their printed editions, complete with layout, headlines, text style and display adverts. Most broadcasters also have websites, to promote their services or as gateways through which audiences can access their programs being streamed.
  • Apps: Although they can look and behave like websites, apps (software applications) are stand-alone programs that deliver content from a specific provider (e.g. newspaper, broadcaster etc) without the need for an internet browser. Apps tend to be better tailored for viewing on specific devices, so an app for a tablet might be different from the app for a smartphone. Media organisations increasingly supply their content through their own apps so it is displayed as they want it, rather than how a browser will show it.
  • Blog: Short for web log, an online commentary or diary often written and recorded by individuals about their specialist interests, hobbies, family, politics etc. Many media organisations allow contributors to write blogs providing extra information or opinion columns not published in their main edition. Such blogs often carry a disclaimer that they do not reflect the opinions of the main publication.
  • Podcasting and vlogcasting: Podcasts are usually stand-alone audio content delivered over the internet. They can be made by individuals using less complex and expensive systems than radio broadcasters. News and current affairs form only one small genre of podcasting. While normal standards of journalism should apply to news-branded podcasts, they are often more subjective, partly due to a lack of editorial oversight. Vlogcasting (or vlogging) is a video version of podcasting or blogging.
  • Live blogging: A cross between live broadcasting and blogging, live blogging tries to provide rolling coverage or a breaking or unfolding news event. At present, live blogging tends to be little more than continuous updating of facts and comments, though it is becoming more sophisticated. We will look more at live blogging later
  • Streaming: While streaming is usually just the method of carrying other new media audio/video content, it provides the capacity to reach audiences beyond traditional terrestrial broadcasters (including overseas) and to allow people to time-shift their watching or listening to when they prefer. Streaming usually includes technologies such as audio on demand (AOD) and video on demand (VOD).

Perhaps the best-known ways of streaming are Over-the-Top (OTT) media services offering content directly to viewers via the Internet. OTT bypasses (i.e. goes “over the top of”) cable, broadcast, and satellite television platforms, which have traditionally acted as distributors of such content. OTT services differ from country to country but around the world the best known range from the entertainment giants such as Netflix, Disney+ and Hulu to “full service” public broadcasters such as BBC iPlayer (UK) and ABC iView (Australia).

  • Portable digital devices: Many media organisations use apps to deliver content to mobile devices such as smartphones. This content can be either the same as their main editions or programs or created specifically for mobile devices.
  • Social media. These provide a host of different ways of delivering news and current affairs to audiences. In 2021 the principal social media used for news and current affairs were Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. News content on social media is often restricted in authoritarian countries, which may have their own state-monitored platforms such as WeChat and Sina Weibo in Communist China and Vkontakte in Russia.
  • Online gaming: Although not really a stand-alone platform for journalism, the fact that it reaches people who may not be regular news consumers means there are opportunities to insert news and information into gaming sites around the games themselves. This might be useful to reach gamers with news and information of special interest to them. In 2021, the United Nations Development Programme's climate survey of 1.2 million people around the world was distributed via advertisements in video games and puzzles, including Angry Birds, Subway Surfers, Sudoku and Words With Friends, and this particularly helped reach younger people.

There are other new media platforms that are rarely used for journalism. These include:

  • Optical discs and portable storage. Media such as DVDs, Blu-ray discs and CDs are now becoming seen as old or “transition” technologies, replaced by the immediacy and flexibility of internet-based platforms. They are still used for entertainment and education where an internet connection is not important. Blu-ray in particular produces very high-quality images while audio CDs provide better sound quality than streaming, which compresses the signal for transmission. These media may still be useful for producing, storing and distributing documentaries and raw footage of high-quality audio and video.
  • Video gaming: Whether through devices such as PlayStation and Xbox or through online multiplayer programs, device-based games can also be played without an internet connection and can be of higher video quality than online games, though this is changing as internet connections get faster. These might be of niche interest to journalism.
  • Digital/tech art: Uses new electronic and digital technologies, often familiar to audiences and designed to be interactive or provocative in new, unusual ways. These might be of interest to arts and entertainment journalists.

Choosing the right medium

The choice of which new media platforms (methods) to use for producing and distributing content depends on many factors, such as:

  • Existing capacity: Does the organisation or individual have enough capacity (resources) to produce a website, social media, video streams, podcasts etc and enough content to fill it?
  • Cost: New media are often cheaper distribution platforms than old media, which needed such infrastructure as printing presses, transport networks, studios, transmission towers etc. However, there are still infrastructure costs such as computing equipment, platform construction, internet costs, digital recording technologies, training etc.
  • Availability of technologies: In many countries new media technologies may not be available or well established, such as fast internet networks, mobile device data transmission etc.
  • Use by audiences: Again, in some countries audiences may not have access to some new digital technologies and may not be familiar with using them. Many citizens in developing nations still rely on terrestrial analogue radio or television for most of their news.
  • Regulation: While internet-based technologies have made production tools and publishing systems more accessible to many news media and their audiences, some governments impose restrictions on them, either to protect people from harm (e.g. pornography, hate speech etc) or to stop citizens seeing or hearing news that is critical or embarrassing to their leaders. The Chinse government, for example, regularly blocks platforms such as Gmail, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and others. And it carefully controls home-grown platforms such as Weibo, Renren and YouKu. While not the harshest controls in the world – North Korea and other repressive regimes can be worse - the Chinese government’s strict censorship practices have been called the Great Firewall of China 防火長城.

Technologies,traps and bubbles

The digital divide
While technology companies and leading-edge users may see the new media world as limitless, the truth is that a “digital divide” exists between rich and poor countries and between different sectors of society within countries. For example, poor and poorly-educated people will probably have less access to computers than people in wealthier countries or parts of their society. Older people usually find it harder to access new media than young people. The spread of cheap smartphones has helped to empower poorer people, but they still require affordable and efficient data networks and many devices are not suitable for complex multimedia programs, so producers may struggle to make suitable content and users will get poor or incomplete services. Additionally, poor nations may lack the resources to set up the infrastructure needed to sustain new media technologies, such as optical fibre cables and communications towers.

The challenge for journalists in digitally disadvantaged nations is to use the most appropriate technologies to reach their audiences. Sometimes, this can mean adapting advanced technologies to local circumstances, a process that has been called downscaling (or right-scaling). While downscaling may overcome resource limitations, it is important that news media continue to offer their readers, viewers and listeners quality content that  is fair, accurate and balanced.

The form-over-content trap
As well as digital technologies allowing great diversity in who can produce news, they have also produced unintended downsides, such as the “form-over-content” trap. This is when too much effort is put into the way a news site looks and sounds, to the detriment of effort spent on the news itself. For serious journalists, content should always be the number one priority. It is why most journalists work in the media and why most people choose to read, view or listen to them.

Traditional, legacy media generally required many people doing different jobs to produce news, from the news editor or chief of staff assigning the story to reporters getting it, to sub-editors editing, technicians producing, printers printing, logistics staff or broadcast engineers distributing the finished paper or program. Each was a specialist in his or her own field and worked as part of a team, with each specialist member producing the best quality work at their level efficiently. Over them all were the editorial executives determining how staff and other resources should be allocated to produce quality content in an efficient, cost-effective way.

New media has seen the loss of many of those jobs and nowadays fewer people have input into the actual content of news. Sometimes only one person does all the roles on individual websites, blogs or social media feeds. This can result in a lack of individual expertise and oversight, as we will discuss shortly under social media quality control.

This can lead to an imbalance in where effort is best applied, most usually when designing and building a great looking website or blog but not putting enough effort into producing the best content, whether that is hard news, expert analysis, factual features or even popular entertainment information and reviews.

Of course, the look and functioning of a website is important, but without good content people will not revisit it, like or share it with their friends, colleagues and the wider community.

"We'll fix it later" trap
Online publication means stories are never “finished” in the way they were with printed newspapers or broadcast news bulletins. Publishing online means there is always the opportunity to add to, update or adjust stories as new information or material becomes available. This has many obvious advantages, but it also has disadvantages, one of which is the “we’ll fix it later” trap.

The rush to publication – and especially re-publications – can lead journalists to pay less attention to stories they have already published online. We think we know what we have already written so we may become lazy, failing to check new versions of the story with the discipline we would otherwise apply to a new story. Whereas producing a new breaking story will see reporters and editors performing at the top of their game, driven by adrenalin as the print or broadcast deadline approaches, when there is no deadline the same people can fall back to less focused standards of working.

Without the journalistic demands of researching and writing new stories, we can tend to treat re-writes and rejigs with less care than a new story. This is especially common when the re-write adds or clarifies details missing from previous versions of the story. It is common in online editions of even high-quality legacy media to overlook outdated information that should have been removed or amended. For example, the original story may have ended with something like “The minister’s office has been approached for a response”, but this sentence is still left in when the story is rewritten to include new comments from the minister. This error is especially common when the intro and leading paragraphs are new and the old material is simply added on to them. It makes the journalism seem lazy and untrustworthy.

It is also common in live blogging, where new information is added as a new post. You would not be expected – or even be able – to go back and amend previous posts, but you will be expected to include in your new post updated information that was missing or incorrect in previous posts.

How can we avoid the “we’ll fix it later” trap? By never assuming that your work can be fixed later in a more up-to-date version and by applying the same high level of care and attention to our work whether it is a breaking story or a rewrite of an already published story. If you write a new lead, you must still read through the whole story again to the very end, no matter how many times you have checked some of the information, wording or construction. If there are errors or omissions, they need fixing now, not later.

News bubbles

Before we leave the topic of new media for audiences, we should introduce the concept of “news bubbles”, which affect both news organisations and social media platforms.

A news bubble is a relatively recent term for a human behaviour that has existed for centuries but which has been made worse in recent decades with the decline of mass media and the increase of diverse new media.

A news bubble is the tendency for people to select news media that reflect and feed their existing biases to the exclusion of other media offering different facts, opinions or views of the world. News bubbles can exist at different levels and over a wide range of human interests. They can range from single issues to whole-of-life influences. For example, during the COVID-19 global pandemic, many people for different reasons chose to downplay the threat of the virus to human life or to resist vaccination against it. They tended to look for evidence in the media and social media to support their outlook and they ignored media that they disagreed with. They constructed a kind of intellectual bubble they could try to live within, untroubled by the conflict of ideas that human beings find challenging … and tiring.

While constructing a personal information bubble is understandable in ordinary people – especially when they find the alternatives frightening – it is ethically wrong for professional journalists to exploit them. Yet this is what has happened in many parts of the world, from free speech democracies to totalitarian regimes.

In so-called free media markets from the United States to India and Australia, many media outlets and their reporters, opinion writers, columnists and on-air presenters have found that feeding one-sided media bubbles can grow audiences and “lock in” readers, listeners and viewers to the exclusion of their competitors, growing support and advertising revenue. Though Fox News did not invent fearmongering or sensationalism, the American TV network has been an example of how news media can make money by inflating the fears of people sheltering in the Fox news bubble. By doing this, their reporters, presenters and panellists betrayed the core journalistic principle of offering fair, accurate and balanced news, current affairs and analysis.

In totalitarian regimes, governments create and inflate news bubbles. By releasing only the news they want, controlling news outlets and restricting critics, they create news bubbles for their citizens to live in. In some ways, the news bubbles created by totalitarian governments are more difficult for people to escape because citizens may not even be aware that opposing facts exist or of the real truth their governments choose to hide from them. In free speech democracies, most people are aware other views and alternative media voices exist but they choose not to engage with them, remaining safe inside the certainties they think exist in their own bubble.

As we move on to social media, it is worth noting that many social media platforms can create news and information bubbles around users without their active choice. When a platform such as Facebook harvests information on a user - from their enrolment details and from tracking the things they like and the sites they share - this information is fed into an algorithm, a small program that changes itself according to new data inputted. These algorithms mean that Facebook and similar social media apps feed users with more information on - and links to - information similar to what they are already receiving. Without knowing it, a user can become trapped in a news, information or even entertainment bubble, to the exclusion of what is going on elsewhere.


What are social media

Social media are ways of exchanging information and opinions between users with minimal controls by “gatekeepers” such as editors or owners. If mass media are the few talking to the many, social media are the many talking to each other. Apart from national laws and the rules of the companies that create and manage social media platforms, there are few obvious constraints on the information that can be shared across social media. This has both strengths and weaknesses as we will discuss shortly.

In practice, while mass media include newspapers publishers and broadcasters, social media are made up of users who speak to each other and share information across each platform. There are too many social media platforms to name them all – and their popularity grows and diminishes over time – but the following were the 17 most popular platforms around the world by monthly active users (MAU) in July 2021:

1.         Facebook (2.853 billion)
2.         YouTube (2.291 billion)
3.         WhatsApp (2 billion).
4.         Instagram (1.386 billion)
5.         Facebook Messenger (1.3 billion)
6.         WeChat inc. Weixin 微信 (1.242 billion)
7.         TikTok (732 million)
8.         QQ 腾讯QQ (606 million)
9.         Douyin 抖音 (600 million)
10.       Telegram (550 million)
11.       Sina Weibo (530 million)
12.       Snapchat (514 million)
13.       Kuaishou 快手 (481 million)
14.       Pinterest (478 million)
15.       Reddit (430 million)
16.       Twitter (397 million)
17.       Quora (300 million)
[NOTE: Some of these MAU numbers are estimates as some platforms do not publish up-to-date figures or they keep their user numbers secret.]

The main features of social media

After the development of the internet itself, in the field of communications social media have had the greatest effects on the lives of ordinary people. They have enabled people to share texts, photos, audio files and videos with each other, with no-one apparently standing in-between, no gatekeepers or editors deciding who can use the platform or what they can share. Of course, this is not entirely correct, because all apps belong to the companies that own and administer them and those companies set rules about what can be shared and who can enrol. For example, in January 2021, Twitter permanently banned US President Donald Trump for using their platform to encourage the infamous Capitol insurrection, despite the fact that Trump was one of the Twitter’s most followed users, with 88-million at his peak. Facebook and Instagram also suspended his accounts for two years.

The otherwise apparent lack of central control over social media platforms have led users in western free-speech democracies to act as if “anything goes” – that they can post and see anything they want. This has had a huge democratising effect on societies, with users feeling they can have an equal say in their lives, economies and governments. While this is not entirely true in practice, it has led to a dramatic opening up of communications and the media.

The following are some of the main issues journalists should consider when using social media in their work.

  • Sharing: Social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter were originally promoted as ways of sharing information between individuals and groups. This sharing has had all sorts of benefits in bringing people together, bridging differences, accumulating knowledge, sharing experiences, entertaining us and a host more. These have come with downsides, of course, in reducing the needs for face-to-face interactions, allowing people to say and do bad things while hiding their identities, dragging some people into the social media melee against their will and more. In general, though, facilitating knowledge sharing has been one of the greatest benefits of social media, including for journalists.
  • Decentralised: Though most social media platforms have physical company headquarters, the actual use of the platforms is decentralised. People do not need to go to a central point – even virtually – to make full use of the apps. There is a sense of freedom in this and also a sense of intimacy in feeling that you are communicating with your friends, family or people with the same interests – even if it’s only sharing a video on TikTok. Having no centre to be targeted has also helped users survive crackdowns by authorities. In 2021, part of the success of the Taliban in overrunning Afghanistan in a matter of weeks was attributed to their use of social media apps to communicate, intimidate and propagandise, even though as an organisation they were officially banned from Facebook and Twitter. Analysis in The Guardian pointed out “there was no radio station to bomb, no signal to jam, no publicist to arrest”.
  • Accessible: Most people with access to the internet can use social media platforms, Many of them are free to use, even for people on low incomes and unlike print newspapers or broadcast television you don’t need to go to a special place to access them – they can be anywhere you can get an internet signal to your device. Of course, some authoritarian governments try various ways to limit their citizens accessing some social media, especially those that contain content critical of the government. Observers point out, however, that in the pre-digital era governments were able to prevent newspapers entering their nations and block radio and television signals from penetrating far into their country.
  • Everywhere: Social media are seemingly everywhere, in every corner of the world. In the section “Less regulated” below, we discuss how not all social media platforms are available in all countries, but with few exceptions even countries where free-speech platforms are banned, governments allow their own indigenous platforms to operate, albeit highly censored. China, for example, blocks Facebook and Twitter but has its own such as WeChat 微信 and Sina Weibo 新浪微博. By July 2021 it was estimated there are about 4.4 billion regular users of social media around the world. Wherever the internet is available and people have smart devices or computers, they can access some social media, whether they want it or not.
  • Simple to use: Social media apps have been designed so they are simple to use by all ages and levels of education. Once you have downloaded the app, you can begin using it, though most require users to log in and provide some information for verification. Controls within apps are usually simple and intuitive (so-called “user friendly”) and although some have several levels of increasing complexity, most users quickly find a level of operability that suits them and their uses.
  • Cheap/free: Most social media platforms do not charge for ordinary use. Some might charge businesses who want to advertise on the platform or sell their products. Some also offer what they call “premium services” whereby users pay a subscription to access special features such as a better quality of goods, services or people to network with. Many premium subscriptions are also offered ad-free for users who want to avoid annoying advertising which slows down their navigation of the platform’s content.

    One of the major disagreements between online mass media and social media platforms is in the field of who pays for content. For example, many platforms allow users to post or share news stories, photos and videos that people would otherwise have to pay to access on the news organisations’ own websites or mobile apps. News media say this is effectively the platforms “selling” content which is not theirs, thus avoiding the costs of producing the news content themselves. The platforms argue they are just the carriers and, besides, they act as a free shop window to the media organisations, even providing links to the original content for users to click on to see for themselves.

  • Hidden costs: Although most social media platforms do not charge their users fees to post and download content, there are hidden costs because the platforms are, after all, commercial businesses. Facebook alone made US$85 billion revenue in 2020, mainly from the sale of advertising on the pages you use. Advertising is not a direct charge on users (apart from on the advertisers themselves) but it ultimately comes from the pockets of users as additional expenses that must be recovered from the sellers in the form of the price of their goods or services. In so-called “free market economies”, although competition in theory forces down prices, in reality consumers ultimately pay for everything.

    As a sideline, platforms like Facebook harvest the value of the information they hold on each user (such as age, gender, nationality, likes, shares and previous spending habits) and they turn that into dollars by creating algorithms they can then promote to advertisers wanting to target similar people. The more information each person puts into their profile and the more often they click on content, the more valuable they are to the platform and its advertisers.
    Some platforms also sell information they gather on their users to other people, though in some jurisdictions around the world they are required to inform the individual when they do this and then allow them to opt out of letting the company use it.

  • Less regulated: As mentioned earlier, around the world social media are typically less regulated than traditional media and in most free-speech countries there are fewer bodies established to oversee social media in general. Attempts to establish tighter regulation of social media have often met with resistance from the platform owners themselves. For example, in February 2021 Facebook temporarily blocked news to Australians in a dispute over a proposed Australian law that would force it and Google to pay news publishers for content. Although the ban was lifted, tension remains in Australia and many countries between social media platform owners and governments.

    Some authoritarian governments have simply imposed their own laws on social media. China, for example, has blocked Twitter, Google and WhatsApp, replacing them with Chinese providers such as Weibo, Baidu and WeChat, which the government strictly control and censor. Governments also block social media in Iran, Syria, and North Korea, where less than 1% of the population is estimated to have access to the internet anyway.
    Most countries fall somewhere between on regulation, with social media companies claiming that self-regulation means laws are not necessary.

  • Germany, for example, imposed a NetzDG Network Enforcement Act law in 2018, forcing larger social media companies to set up procedures to review complaints about content they are hosting, remove anything that is clearly illegal within 24 hours and publish updates every six months about how they were doing. Companies can be fined for non-compliance.
  • The European Union is considering clamping down on terror videos and has introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which set rules on how companies, including social media platforms, store and use people's data.
  • Australia passed the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act in 2019, with criminal penalties for social media companies and their executives. They also have an eSafety Commissioner with power to demand that social media companies take down harassing or abusive posts and so-called revenge porn.
  • In the Unites States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for implementing and enforcing America’s communications law and regulations in legacy communications and mass media, but by the end of 2021 the issue of regulating social media had not been finalised. The waters are muddied by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which stops the government from limiting a person’s freedom of expression but allows private companies to do just that, hence the inclination to self-regulation.
  • In Britain, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) regulates communications industries including the TV and radio sectors, fixed line telecoms, mobiles, postal services and the radio spectrum. It works with the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and in February 2020, the department proposed that Ofcom should be empowered to intervene in the internet and social media to protect Britons from online harm, especially children and other vulnerable people. The proposed Online Harms Act would use a mixture of self-regulation and government intervention in the case of breached.
  • Egalitarian: In general, almost anyone who wants to post content on social media platforms can do so. As mentioned earlier, it is accessible to almost anyone to both visit and to post. This means there are generally no gatekeepers judging the talent of content creators or the quality of their work. Success is measured mainly by the number of people who follow posts and their creators. Given how many people use social media globally (it is estimated that in 2021 there were 4.4 billion regular users around the world), it is quite common for popular creators to get millions of followers and for posts to get tens of millions of likes. By June 2021 a photo of an egg had clocked a record 55 million likes on Instagram, admittedly as part of an attempt to set the record. There was nothing distinctive about the photo or the post creators, demonstrating how fickle and powerful success can be on social media (in terms of likes and shares) and how little creativity or content quality matter in many social media.

  • Impermanent: Social media interactions can be seen as less permanent than other forms of communications. Newspapers and magazines, for example, have physical existence and can be kept and accessed months and years after they were published. Radio and television were originally seen as less permanent than print media, even though over the years storage and accessibility have been improved. Websites are usually quite static and even though their content might be changed – new information added, articles updated – websites are usually stored, archived and available for a long time. Social media content, on the other hand, is seen as less permanent, more transient and changing. Typically social media content appears in “streams”, with the most recent post at the top pushing older posts further and further down. Users deal with this by reading posts and adding material more frequently, often several times day on popular apps. They become less concerned about spending time getting their posts correct as they are not seen as permanent records. The important thing is to keep interactions turning over at a fast pace. This makes finding old information difficult in social media streams but most users are no bothered by this, any more than they would be bothered to make a tape recording of a telephone call or video a chat with a friend over a café table.

Some social media platforms were built to exploit this impermanence and have taking it to extremes. Users of apps like Snapchat – mainly younger people - actually like the fact that their messages disappear after a short time. This can relieve them of the fear of being embarrassed, mocked or blamed for their “snaps”. And this is why Snapchat has been used extensively for “sexting” and snapping sexualised images – the evidence disappears before the originator can be brought to account. The brief life and superficiality of Snaps have worked against the platform, which is now one of the lesser social media apps around the world.
For journalists, Snapchat might be seen as a useful tool to cover their tracks while researching a story, though there are ways of keeping copies of snaps that can be used against them.

  • Easily manipulated: Impermanence is a double-edged sword. As a positive, many digital platforms are flexible and easy to adapt, responsive to changing circumstances. There is no cumbersome mechanism or process needed to change to meet new needs. Indeed, many platforms can autonomously change without human intervention using algorithms. Once human programmers have set up algorithms for an app to do something, that algorithm proceeds to implement the process faster and less subjectively than a human. Algorithms, however, are prone to making errors that a human might detect. During a controversial period for Facebook in late-2021 it was discovered that many algorithms led to unintended, unfortunate outcomes that affected vulnerable users – such as children and young people – or produced misleading results. For example, researchers discovered that search results could be affected by simple emojis, small graphic symbols often used as a short form to express a simple emotion or idea. As reported in The Washington Post, they found Facebook’s ranking algorithm treated emoji reactions (which are quick, superficial responses) as five times more valuable than “likes”, which usually require a slightly higher level of thought. It suited Facebook’s business model to keep its users more engaged at a superficial, unconsidered level.

    While the media have been accused of manipulating consumers for hundreds of years, digital media make manipulation quicker and easier. One of the simplest tools to fool readers is clickbait, links embedded in an attractive text or an image that promises to take readers to more information on the topic but which actually leads to something else, usually unrelated, such as an advertisement or a sponsored article. Even trusted media companies sometimes use clickbait on their websites to increase internet traffic and profitability. For example, mainstream media such as NewsCorp may post more than 70 clickbait links (labelled "We recommend ...") at the foot of a single online article, some linking to further content but many just to advertising.

  • Poor editorial controls: For journalists, one of the main differences from legacy mass media (either pre-digital or online) is social media’s lack of editorial control over content quality. This includes:
    • technical quality of text, audio and vision,
    • quality of language used (spelling, grammar, fluency etc),
    • production standards including editing and processing,
    • journalistic practices of accuracy, fairness and balance of news,
    • semantics and truth, for example distinguishing facts from opinions,
    • compliance with communications laws such as defamation and copyright.

Almost the only time there is evidence of professional standards is in posts by media organisations themselves and – to some extent – other professional bodies. Otherwise, the features that make social media so accessible and egalitarian mean most posts by ordinary people are little more than their normal interactions – just online instead of face-to-face. For many people, spelling, grammar (or lack of it), structure, balance, fairness, the importance of facts and evidence are not seen as important as they are to journalists. Most social media posts have rough honesty that make them attractive but also unreliable.
A story published or broadcast by professional media will usually have passed through several pairs of hands before being printed or distributed to readers, viewers or listeners. Each person in the chain will have chance to spot and correct errors, fill in omissions and generally improve the quality of the piece. Photo and sound technicians and video editors will be able to improve visual and audio quality. Senior editorial managers and company lawyers may be asked to give their opinions about what can and cannot be used. The finished story will be the best this group of professionals can make it. Compare this to one person posting some information on their own social media account without any checks on quality, truth, taste or accuracy.

Journalists posting on social media must recognise and build in correctives for this weakness (such as seeking advice before posting). Journalists using social media for research must take steps to check the reliability of what they see. [See Fake news & trust chains for more information.]

  • Poor quality control: Critics of social media say there is little quality control on most  platforms, not just editorially but over content more generally. The social media platform owners argue that quality is often a matter of personal taste and their job is not to act as arbiters of taste. They use principles such as the US First Amendment protecting freedom of expression to support their case and they claim that they apply self-regulation more often than people might think. For example, YouTube releases a transparency report, which gives data on its removals of inappropriate content. The video-sharing site owned by Google said that 8.8m videos were taken down between July and September 2019, with 93% of them automatically removed by machines, and two thirds of those clips not receiving a single view.
    It also removed 3.3 million channels and 517 million comments.
    Globally, YouTube employs 10,000 people in monitoring and removing content, as well as policy development. Facebook, which owns Instagram, told Reality Check it has more than 35,000 people around the world working on safety and security, and it also releases statistics on its content removals. Between July and September 2019 Facebook took action on 30.3 million pieces of content, of which it found 98.4% before any users flagged it.

Quality control – Case Study

Social media’s general lack of quality controls – including agreed editorial standards - and the ambiguity over regulation affect not only ordinary users but create weaknesses that extend to more prominent users. In a celebrated recent case, the problem reached all the way to the President of the United States.

For many years before and during his presidency, Donald Trump had been a prolific, self-indulgent user of social media. On Twitter alone, from opening his account in 2009 he tweeted 57,000 times, including more than 25,000 times as President. To Trump, social media were simply tools for his own ambition, to be exploited just as he manipulated his followers. According to records by the Washington Post, Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims during his four years in the White House. The bulk of them were in his social media posts – especially on Twitter – where he acted as if unconstrained either morally or practically. While stories later emerged of attempts by his family and staff to moderate his wilder falsehoods, almost no-one stood in his way when he wanted to let fly with Tweets and Facebook posts.
Towards the end of his presidency, various social media platforms eventually suspended, blocked or banned Trump, either partially or wholly. For example, in January 2021 Twitter permanently suspended his @realDonaldTrump handle, followed by the official account of his campaign (@TeamTrump). Trump’s allies who posted on his behalf also had their accounts suspended. According to research analytics firm Zignal Labs, these measures led to a 73% decline in the spread of election-related misinformation during the first week following the bans.
The platforms’ blocking of Trump may have been an example of self-regulation in action, but observers say it was forced upon the platform owners by government threats of stronger social media laws – so it was more a case of self-preservation.

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Different types of social media

Although people have been communicating over the internet since it started (officially on 1 January 1983), true social media didn’t begin for another 14 years, with the launch of the SixDegrees platform, named after the theory that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else through an informal chain of six or fewer other people. closed in 2000. However, the principle of connecting people through expanding networks of contacts survived with a succession of start-ups including, in order, Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat by 2011. By 2021 there were literally hundreds of social media platforms around the world and billions of regular users.
While there are many ways of categorising social media platforms, according to, there are eight main types of interest to businesses:

  • Social networks, e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
  • Media sharing networks, e.g. Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat.
  • Discussion forums, e.g. Reddit, Quora, Digg.
  • Bookmarking and content curation networks, e.g. Pinterest, Flipboard.
  • Consumer review networks, e.g. Yelp, Zomato, TripAdvisor.
  • Blogging and publishing networks, e.g. WordPress, Tumblr, Medium.
  • Social shopping networks, e.g. Polyvore, Etsy, Fancy.
  • Interest-based networks, e.g. Goodreads, Houzz,

Some of these will be of special interest to journalists in their production and/or publishing of news. Hootsuite says their uses include:

  • Information sharing, e.g. Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Messenger, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, Quora.
  • News aggregators: e.g. Apple News, Google News, Feedly, Flipboard.
  • Sharing media material (in full or part): e.g. Vimeo, Dailymotion, YouTube, Liveleak, Flickr, Snapchat, Instagram Stories, Reels. For audio sharing (including podcasts) there are Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, Spotify.
  • Interpersonal communications between families, friends, like-minded people or groups: Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram, Tumblr, TikTok, KiK. (Also WeChat/Weixin 微信, QQ 腾讯QQ, Sina Weibo 新浪微博 and Qzone QQ空间 in China.)
  • Entertainment:  YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest. Metacritic is a useful aggregator of entertainment news and reviews.
  • Livestreaming: e.g. Twitch, YouTube, Instagram Live Rooms, Facebook Live, TikTok.
  • Messaging: e.g. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Snapchat, Instagram Direct, Viber, Skype. (Also WeChat/Weixin and QQ in China and Line in Japan.)
  • Communicating securely: For communicating behind a security “screen” of passwords and encryption, e.g. Telegram, Discourse, Slack, Facebook Groups. For posting messages and material that deletes itself, e.g. Snapchat, Instagram Stories, Facebook Stories, LinkedIn Stories.
  • Soap boxing. Blogs can be social media but many of them are not because they are not interactive, just one-way delivery of views and opinions, the traditional one-to-many model. While many news organisations encourage staff to blog, personal blogs are not usually delivered in their own apps. Rather, they are built on software platforms such as WordPress, Wix, Weebly, Joomla.

NOTE: Many of the platforms listed above are actually aggregators of content. This means they do not produce or even curate their own news. Using artificial intelligence, aggregators just collect stories from across the internet, often from the online sites of professional news media organisations. Individuals can create their own aggregators using RSS feeds (Really Simple Syndication). These draw up-to-the-minute news content from the news organisation’s own sites, usually to display on a section of a web page devoted specifically to RSS feeds.

While social media platforms are great for sharing information gathered from elsewhere, remember that professional media organisations have their own websites and use their own social media apps to share their content. For journalists, it is always advisable to go back to the source of a story on a sharing app to check its accuracy and authenticity. For more on this see Trust Chains.

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Social media tools for journalists

Now you know what platforms/apps are available and the areas in which they perform best, the following section looks at how you can use them in preparation and production of your news and current affairs content. After that we will examine how journalists can use the most appropriate apps and platforms for distributing their content to readers, viewers and listeners.

Tools for production

Journalists must undertake many tasks when producing news and current affairs. The main tasks include:

  1. Communicating and correspondence.
  2. Source of information for research.
  3. Fact-checking information.
  4. Sharing information securely.
  5. Overcome tyrannies of time and distance.
  6. Producing up-to-date news (live blogging)
  7. Receiving feedback.

We will look at each of these tasks in turn and discuss the best social media tools to use in each one. Some of the platforms and apps can help with several tasks.

1. Communicating and correspondence.

There are several social media and social networking platforms and apps for communicating with other people, sending and receiving messages, conducting interviews, checking facts etc. Some of these are text-based, others audio-visual and some both. Some are more widespread than others, so you cannot assume that because you are using a specific app that the people you are communicating with can also use that app. For example, WhatsApp is a popular and secure communications tool, but it does require both parties to be registered and it uses data streams that may be limited for some people.

The technical quality of some apps may be poorer than others, especially when using them with audio and video, which uses a lot more data than text. Many users find FaceTime of limited quality compared to a dedicated platform such as Zoom, but then again both parties have to be registered to use Zoom and one party has to act as host and formally “invite” other parties to participate.

In October 2021, the Australian consumer magazine Choice compared the 11 most used video chat apps and found Zoom to be the best, followed by Facebook Messenger, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Slack, WhatsApp, FaceTime, Houseparty, Signal and Discord, with Skype bringing up the rear. [The reports are behind a subscription paywall.]

Telephones are still one of the best ways of quick and easy communications between people. Despite the "digital divide" discussed above, an estimated five-billion people have access to some kind of telephone, either fixed line, mobile or Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), though some people – for example younger people in western countries – tend to use smartphones for text massaging and other social networking apps more often than making voice calls. Phones can make contact quickly and can establish more personal communications, for hearing the tone of people being interviewed (for example, whether they hesitate when answering some questions) and they can be seen as establishing greater person-to-person trust than text-based platforms.

While voicemail has been useful to avoid missing calls, the advent of voicemail can also be an impediment to journalists; if people want to avoid talking to you they may monitor their incoming calls and decide not to answer or not to return calls. Chapter 17 is a whole chapter devoted to telephone interviews.

The definitions of social media and social networking are still evolving, though all seem to speak about the internet, accessibility to the general population, sharing content and the use of specific platforms or apps.

By such definitions, email was probably one of the earliest forms of social media and although no longer as dominant as it once was, email is still the world’s most widely used form of digital communications utilising the internet. According to, by 2021 there were 4.6 billion email users around the world. That compares with 2.8 billion on Facebook and two billion on WhatsApp, though there is obviously some overlapping between all these platforms.

Some critics say email is not actually social media because of how limited it is in who receives it and how narrowly content is shared. But it is a very useful social networking tool because it is targeted and (usually) private.

There are numerous email platforms depending on the computer and operating system you use.

Text messaging
Text messaging began with Short Message Services (SMS) and grew to include Multimedia Messaging Services (MMS) and Instant Messaging Services, which we will discuss shortly.

Text messages are usually short and easy to respond to, so good if you just need to check something or ask for a short reply (such as confirming an appointment) though they are not suited to interviews as they cannot transfer sufficient information and are slow to use, even for habitual users. Also, unlike voice calls, you cannot be sure the person you’ve sent an SMS to has actually received and read it. Although some text messaging systems display a “delivered” acknowledgment or even a “read” notification, it is possible for recipients to disable these, so the sender will not know what has happened to their outgoing message.

In September 2021, Tom Jones, a columnist at the respected Poynter Institute, reported on a recent case highlighting how “off the record” emails can cause problems.

Instant messaging
Instant messaging allows you to send messages back-and-forth in real-time through a dedicated software application. The most popular include Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, iMessage, Telegram, Line, Viber, Snapchat, Kik and Instagram Direct.

Instant messaging platforms are “Over the Top” (OTT) applications because they do not require a telephone network connection. To send and receive messages, users connect to the internet via wi-fi using devices such as smartphones, laptops, desktops computers or tablets. Some instant messaging applications also allow users to make video and voice calls and share files.

Closed messaging apps: Many instant messaging apps are securely encrypted and therefore useful for journalists communicating about sensitive stories. Sometimes called closed or private messaging apps, the five most common are WhatsApp, Telegram, Discord, WeChat and Signal. The benefits to journalists are their encryption but that is also a weakness in that people with bad intentions also use these platforms to spread misinformation. So while the security is trusted, the content should be treated with suspicion if you don’t know where it originated. Another downside with most messaging platforms is that both parties need to have the app installed on their device. Simple SMS text messaging, by comparison, is usually installed on devices.

2. Source of information for research.

The internet has provided access to information unimagined less than half a century ago. Before the world wide web, journalists had to do all their research in slow and laborious ways, such as speaking to people in person or on the phone, sending and receiving messages by mail or fax or by visiting libraries, archives or delving into their own organisation’s clippings “morgues”. If they wanted real raw data, they might have to ask academics for their research papers or request official papers from government offices. The internet has brought all of this onto the journalist’s computer or smart device as building blocks for their news stories or features.

While most of this massive and increasing amount of information comes from original sources provided through their own websites and located through search engines such as Google, social media too provides a lot of information useful to journalists.

Not only do many organisations have their own social media platforms (such as Facebook or Instagram) through which they supply some of their information resources, but the apps themselves can be useful places to find information about less formal aspects of society, such as the lives – and deaths - of individuals and the happenings of community groups.

As we discuss in Chapter 51 Obituaries, before the digital age, journalists often had to travel to interview the friends and families of newsworthy dead people to find out about them. Today journalists can trawl social media to get much of that information – including photographs or video footage. Beware, though, that such information obtained from social media posts can be misleading and one-sided. In the case of someone newly dead, very few people who knew them will give honest, unvarnished assessments of their loved one’s qualities good or bad, so you could end up with a succession of tributes to “a great person”, “loving dad” or “beautiful spirit”. And while the comments from heart-broken survivors might make good human-interest copy, they may not actually advance your readers’, listeners’ or viewers’ understanding of who they actually were.

Keeping a record
Journalists have many tools to help them keep records of their work, especially before it is published or broadcast for everyone to see or hear. These range from audio or video recording, through mail and email to social media. Records can help journalists revisit what they do, maybe to expand on their stories or explore different aspects in future. Sometimes a record is important proof if parts of the story are later disputed.

While audio-visual recordings safely stored are good records of what was said and its context, physical copies such as paper records (including notes) and digital records (such as emails) are also useful. However, not all social media platforms are good at archiving your records securely and some are actually designed to NOT keep records or only keep them for very short times. Social media apps that either automatically delete content after it is read or only save it for a limited time include Snapchat, Telegram, Wickr, Cover Me, SpeakOn and Bleep. Some of these are boutique apps but most of the major social networking platforms allow users to set time limits to keep and then purge content. The major social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc have different methods to determine how long you can keep content. In some cases, this duration can be altered through the app’s Settings function. In Messages, you can choose from different options how long you keep messages. WhatsApp does not store old messages centrally, these are kept on your device.

If you’re a journalist who wants to keep social media content for a long time, you should explore the settings of the apps you use and adjust them to suit your record-keeping. There are also stand-alone apps you can download to delete content or control how long you keep content. If you want to keep old posts, chats or Tweets, you should also back up the content of your social media apps on other devices, such as your computer, or in a cloud storage system such as Apple iCloud or Google Drive.

The advantages of keeping records must always be considered against the downsides of having your work content exposed to discovery for other users, whether hackers or authorities seeking access. So the longer you keep records, the more chance there is that someone or some authority might be able to access that content to use against you.

As mentioned above when we discussed researching through websites, social media accounts can be closed and/or their content deleted if people want to destroy evidence of their past behaviour, misdeeds, mistakes and comments. Typically, once journalists start “snooping around” for evidence on social media, the people involved try to delete incriminating posts. They can do this app-by-app or can use special programs designed to do that task across all their social media in one stroke. While much of the content of social media may still be available on archives – either on the app itself or searchable through Google or programs such as Wayback - it may be hard to track down and is not always retrievable. It is therefore important that you make permanent copies of any newsworthy social media material you want to use in your stories as soon as you come across it.

3. Fact-checking information.

As well as researching material for stories, social media can be useful in fact checking information. People’s lives have become much more open to outsiders than before social media, with users now sharing personal information, expressing views and posting images for the whole world to see. These posts can give journalists information that had been previously hidden. For example, many great news stories have been based on a journalist spotting that a politician who said he was at work was actually on holiday, posting family photos onto his or her Facebook account at the time. In fact, there was a national scandal in Canada when more than a dozen politicians and staff were caught-out holidaying overseas at Christmas 2020 when Canadians were being told to stay at home because of COVID-19.

Be aware, though, that social media are not generally reliable places to find primary sources of information for fact checking. Most social media posts are little more than the re-posting of content from somewhere else, often wrong or misleading. While social media might give a journalist clues or leads to where to look for confirmation, being posted on Facebook does not itself make something reliably true. According to Pew Centre research in January 2021, although about 50 per cent of American adults say they get some or all of their news from social media, almost two-thirds of them say they expect that news to be inaccurate. This should be a warning to journalists.

And journalists should recognise that the population in general do not apply the same high standards of truth, accuracy and balance to their own social media interactions. According to research conducted by RMIT FactLab, people who actively seek out fact-checked information often still share misinformation.

The study found that subscribers to CoronaCheck remained susceptible to sharing possible misinformation, despite rating themselves as being capable of differentiating between misinformation and accurate information.

Almost one in four people who used fact checking websites admitted they had shared information whose accuracy was unknown at the time, while more than 30 per cent had shared information which they later learned to be inaccurate.

4. Sharing information securely.

There are many reasons why journalists might want to share information securely while they are developing a story. They may not want officials or governments eavesdropping on their work before it is ready for publication/broadcast. They may want to hide it from the subjects of investigations who might want to prevent publication. They might want to protect their confidential sources of information, such as whistleblowers.

Email, mail and phone calls can be quite secure but they are never 100 percent safe. Governments, police and even private sector organisations can eavesdrop, either through their own access to an employee’s emails, phone records etc or through a court order. In many cases, the courts are not required (or permitted) to reveal when such a search warrant is granted.

We talk more about ethical and legal aspects of protecting sources of information in Chapter 60.

The same kind of considerations apply to gathering and sharing information, as we have already discussed above when looking at communications. The same kind of closed messaging apps are useful to journalists when sharing work securely, such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Discord, WeChat and Signal. Some news organisations have set up specially secure contact systems for people to send them news tips or further information about developing stories. The Melbourne Age, for example, has an information page on its website for people wanting to contact its journalists in confidence. It recommends end-to-end encrypted apps including WhatsApp, Signal, ProtonMail, SecureDrop. It also warns that other social media accounts may be monitored by authorities and gives advice to potential sources such as:

  • Make new user accounts separate from the ones you normally use.
  • Clean up or delete browsing history and other traceable behaviour.
  • Do not contact us from work. Most corporate and government networks log traffic. Even if you are using Tor, being the only Tor user at work could make you stand out.
  • Do not email us, call us, or contact us on social media.
  • Do not tell anyone you are a source.

Higher level security with VPNs, the Dark Web and Tor
While we are discussing social media security, it is worth mentioning three specialist tools that journalists can resort to if you need even higher levels of internet security to protect your work and your confidential sources from snooping.

While these provide extra security for general internet usage and are not specifically for social media, they might be useful security tools in your armoury when communicating, researching and sharing more generally.

VPNs: Virtual Private Networks are commercially available network services that work by routing your messages, data searches and other traffic through their own servers and change the IP address so a snooper cannot see where it originated. Unlike Tor, which is a browser, VPNs can carry the whole of a user’s internet traffic, so it can be always on and encrypted. An additional benefit of VPNs is that they can route your international traffic through a server in a third country, so anyone monitoring it cannot see from which country it originated. In countries where governments block or censor incoming internet traffic, this can help to get round border barriers, though many countries and organisations that want to know the country of origin may just block traffic coming from a VPN anyway, just in case. For example, while VPNs can be used to visit overseas video streaming sites to watch content that is not available in your own country for copyright reasons, the BBC iPlayer often blocks requests coming through VPNs just in case they originate overseas.

The Dark Web: is a network of computers linked through the worldwide web but separate from it and not visible to ordinary internet users. The dark web is part of the so-called “deep web”, which is the overwhelming proportion of the internet that is not indexed by search engines and which contains vast amounts of data that flow around the world just to keep the internet working. While the deep web may be difficult to access for ordinary users, the dark web is designed to be hidden by the people who use it and who control the computers it is built of. The dark web uses high levels of encryption, secrecy, disguised identities and private networks to keep their activities hidden.

The dark web is frequently used for illegal activities such as trading or sharing illegal drugs and firearm transactions, unlawful pornography and gambling. Users can withhold their identity, illegal websites can hide their location and data can be transferred anonymously.

The dark web can also be used by honest citizens such as journalists, whistleblowers and activists needing to protect themselves or their information from people wishing to silence them or do them harm, such as governments and their security agencies. We write more about the dark web for journalists on The News Manual Now!

Journalists can imagine the dark web is like a dark alley in a rough area of town where you go at night to meet a secret informant; you may need to enter, but there are dangers you should consider before you do.

Tor: Is a free internet browser that maintains security by transferring data from the sender to the final recipient by passing it through a network of other “relays”, each of which encrypts and decrypts the data and only knows the address of the previous relay and the next, making it almost impossible to track where it has come from and where it is going. While it provides good security, Tor has a couple of weaknesses; it can be much slower than using the internet normally (because of all the transferring between relays) and using it flags to anyone monitoring your traffic that you are trying to hide something.

For more detailed advice on keeping your work secure, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has published a Digital Safety Kit for journalists.

5. Overcoming tyrannies of time and distance.

The earliest forms of journalism – travelling storytellers and printed broadsheets – were constrained by time and distance. It might take weeks for the travelling storyteller to reach isolated communities or for broadsheets to make their way by horse and cart to far-flung readers. Less than 200 years ago, even urgent, important news travelled slowly over long distances. For example, when gold was discovered in California in January 1848, the gold rush only really started when an article appeared in the New York Herald seven months later on 19 August and the news wasn’t published in The Times of London until 10 October.
Technologies such as the telegraph, railways, steamships and then motor vehicles, the telephone and aeroplanes speeded up the process, but then production and distribution of news was still slowed by reporting constraints and printing or broadcast processes.
In the digital age, the recording and gathering of news is almost instant, transmission depends on the speed of the internet and distribution can be so fast that audiences now expect to watch breaking news on their mobile devices as it happens, in real time.
While overcoming the tyrannies of time and distance has all sorts of advantages, it does place special burdens on journalists. They must compete with citizens live streaming events from the scene over social media. This can embolden journalists to produce their own reports in similarly short time frames, which can introduce errors and work against research, fact checking and deeper analysis.
Journalists can never be everywhere all the time events are happening, so they must add value to their reports in other ways, by seeking the truth, sticking to facts, interviewing appropriate participants, producing quality vision, text or audio and generally demonstrating greater care over quality so their reports are trusted. With sub-editors, editors or producers further along the production chain demanding their reports immediately, journalists also have to develop the experience and strength of professional will to know when their reports are ready to be shared and to resist being bullied into premature publication.

6. Producing up-to-date news, including live blogging

Producing up-to-the-minute news has always been an important element of journalism and is now one of the biggest advantages of new media. Perhaps the most widespread technique for producing news at it happens is live blogging. Whether coming from radio, television or print media, live blogging provides a quick and easy way to keep your audiences informed as news is breaking or events are unfolding.
Essentially, live blogging is delivering reports in segments as soon as there is enough of value to say in that segment. You do not need to wait for the event to conclude or for there to be a break in the action. As soon as you have sufficient information to make some sense for your audiences, you can post it live onto the blog stream. When you get some more information, you can post that live and so on. It is like making a necklace of news by adding one pearl at a time to the string as each becomes available. (If you like to continue the metaphor, traditional news bulletins or current affairs programs only present the necklace when it is completed and ready as a whole.)
Live blogging normally involves creating a blog stream on your website page - or blogging apps such as Live,, 24liveblog and Live Blog - and then dropping each new segment in at the top of the stream. As with ordinary posting on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, the latest post pushes all the preceding posts down the page till they disappear off the bottom of the screen.
Live blogging can be disconcerting at times for readers because they are seeing the most recent stage of the story first and then having to work backwards down the stream to put it in context or retrieve earlier details. This is a reversal of the way humans naturally tell stories chronologically, starting at the beginning of the time stream and working forward to the most recent part. Even journalism in the pre-digital era generally told stories chronologically – after, of course, giving the most important news at the start in the intro. However, people who are “digital natives” (i.e. they came of age only knowing digital media), find the “latest first” reading process quite natural.
This aspect of live blogging – and the need to serve people who are less used to handling “latest first” information – means live blogging requires some special protocols. These include:

  • Each new blog post must contain some old information to place the latest information in context. This does not mean repeating previous information in total, but giving your readers signposts about how they got where they are now. For example, live blogging a speech as it is delivered may mean repeating information such as the full name and title of the speakers, the venue, the audience and other snippets of WWWWHW.
  • Each new segment should have a time-and-date stamp on it, so readers can see how recent it is and also allow them to order events in their own minds. Most live blogging platforms insert time stamps automatically, but check this is happening.
  • You will need to adapt to changing priorities in the blog stream. For example, a live blog about election night results can keep dropping in new results as they are announced, but if there is a surprise progress in the counting elsewhere or some other significant event, that will need to be reported on straight away, so make a note of where you were in reporting the results so you can continue doing that in your next post.
  • You need a good memory or a system of recording which information you have already posted and which you are still waiting on. Remember you are mainly reporting in reverse order to the natural timeline, so it is easy to miss out facts that would otherwise be included by chronological development of a story.
  • Every so often you should insert a summary post, that brings your readers up to date with the main points of the story so far. This will help them to avoid having to read the whole stream to catch up on earlier developments. You cannot assume your readers have been with you from the very beginning of the stream; not many readers will do that.
  • Coordination is important, especially if your blog stream is being fed by other colleagues. It is too easy to get posts jumbled up unless everyone pays attention to what is being posted. It is usual in team live blogs for one person to be designated the blog coordinator.

While much of the advice above is specific to live blogging, many of the principals of live coverage of breaking news are covered elsewhere in The News Manual, for example in Chapter 44: The breaking story.

7. Receiving feedback.

Also known as “closing the news loop”, feedback is often the final stage of one reporting task and the beginning of the next. This is because to be an effective journalist you need to know how your work is received – by your audience, by the people involved and by your peers. You can then adjust your next task, correct any errors and improve future reporting.

Social media provide some excellent tools for collecting feedback to close the loop, though it comes with some cautionary downsides.

For centuries, media have had methods of gathering feedback from their audiences. In newspapers and magazines there were Letters to the Editor for reader comments. Radio and then television had tools such as talkback and vox pops to gather opinions, either about the news events themselves or about the media’s coverage of them. Audience surveys and ratings systems turn individual feedback into statistics to get a more general view of how well or badly the organisation itself is doing, what its audiences want more of and what less.

Audience surveys and polls are best designed, implemented and analyses by independent survey professionals for greatest accuracy and trustworthiness. They are therefore different from feedback via letters or talkback, which are the opinions of a small number of people who choose to contact you. Their views can be strongly opinionated in favour of or against a particular cause or political persuasion, so while their opinions may be considered they should not alone determine your news coverage.

Not all legacy media are well-suited to sharing feedback. Television, for example, has few broadcasting opportunities for viewers to inject their comments into public debates. Chat shows are usually little more than panel discussions in front of an audience, while even respected audience involvement programs such as Q&A on Australia’s ABC television network focus as much on including panellists and audience members who can add “drama” to their discussions than on getting representative samples of people whose opinions they air. Radio has generally been better at eliciting feedback through talkback programs though its spinoff – podcasting - has introduced a weakness into the audio medium; podcasts are more built on individuals speaking to audiences than in sharing feedback between people. This can be addressed to some extent by having comment mechanisms on podcaster platforms or social media pages, though these are not as immediately responsive as live talkback on radio.

Most new media and social media platforms are either built on sharing opinions (e.g. Twitter and Instagram) or have a comments section where audiences can leave feedback (e.g. Facebook). These comments pages are the responsibility of the individuals or organisations who “own” the page, so public comments on them should be treated with caution. Most ordinary readers do not make the hard distinction between facts and opinions that journalists should, so it is your job to be the “adult in the room” when moderating comments. It should be done on a frequent, regular basis and if you do not have the time to moderate them properly you should switch off the comments function until you do.

We talk more shortly about the ethical and legal implications of comments sections on new media sites or social media apps.

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Social media platforms for publishing

As we have seen so far, not all social media platforms are alike. Whether your journalism is for a legacy medium venturing into the online world or for an internet-only news service, it is important to choose associated social media platforms for publishing your work carefully to suit your relevant needs. For example, while apps like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are obvious choices for news services, those such as TikTok and Snapchat might not be. They may, however, be a useful conduit to reach certain audiences, especially younger people not turned on by mainstream print and broadcasting, new media or social media apps. Obviously, your content will have to be different too, produced or modified to suit the strengths and weaknesses of the particular app.

Social media apps can fulfil a number of different functions, whether as subsidiary platforms to extend the reach of your work or as main platforms for your output. Purposes may include:

  • Rolling news.
  • Live streaming or catch-up content.
  • News messaging to individual recipients, perhaps subscriber
  • Feedback/comments and further discussion on yours or other people’s news.
  • Community outreach or audience building.
  • Promoting other platforms (multiplier effect), either your own or other people’s.

Choosing the best platform for the type of journalism

The challenge is to bring together the uses you have for social media with the kind of journalism you want to supply. For example, a rolling news platform might be too difficult to maintain if you are working on your own. Streaming audio or video content may be too time consuming and detract from your other tasks.

When selecting which social media to use, you may wish to consider which best suit your journalism priorities, including the following:

  • Producing quality, ethical journalism: Do you want to supply professional standard, objective news that is fair, accurate and balanced? In this case you will need social media platforms that allow you the space and time to present your stories properly, with logical progression, supporting evidence and with facts that have been checked and opinions that can be suitably attributed. We talk more about this in Chapter 56 of The News Manual. With most new media now having inline editions, one option is to contact them to find out whether they would take articles, podcasts or vodcasts from you.
    While established news and current affairs websites might provide the most space for complex, well-argued articles, personal blogs too can expand to suit the length of your content. You can build your own blog using freeware such as WordPress, which has large assortments of ready-made site designs to choose from, plus features such as plugins to customise the site and widgets to run different apps, including RSS Feeds and other useful tools.
    While WordPress is the most common blogging platform, others such as Wix, and Weebly claim to be relatively simple for beginners, though building a blog site is seldom as quick and easy as their promoters allege, so expect to spend time setting up your blog and fashioning it to your needs then maintaining it with backups, security and moderating comments. This is time that will cut into your journalism and it can become a distraction from your real aim.
  • Long or short-form journalism: Do you want to distribute short news stories or longer form journalism?

As mentioned above, different platforms suit different forms of journalism. If all you want is a platform ready-made to distribute short news items of a few hundred characters, then microblog platforms might suit you. The most common microblogging app is Twitter, but could also consider Medium, Tumblr, Instagram, Ello and even Facebook, though some of these – such as Instagram and Facebook – are more suited to informal information sharing than to journalistic articles.
However, if you want to practice long-form journalism, there are very few social media platforms that do this well, so you might want to use websites and blogging platforms as mentioned above.

  • Immediacy or durability: Are you producing journalism for immediate consumption – perhaps with a short “shelf-life” – or journalism that will have a longer life, perhaps be read years from now?

Most social media apps such as Twitter and Facebook tend to be “linear”, which means items are posted one after another, typically with the most recent post at the top pushing previous posts down the page. They are best suited to stories with more immediate interest or urgency that do not need to be kept in front of people once they have been read. Many apps have features such as hashtags (#tags) or at-tags (@tags) that allow you to organise or read posts around topics or people, but few of them have efficient ways of categorising content or of searching inside the app.
For greater durability – so people can search for and visit your stories later – websites are a better option. Good websites are designed for easy navigation using tabs, pull-down menus and categorisation/search functions. And because websites are mainly non-linear, content is available all at the same moment rather than organised in time order. If the website is well-maintained and current, content does not disappear in the way linear platforms do, so it has greater “shelf life” and greater strengths as record-keeping. As mentioned already, there are many applications for building and maintaining websites, ranging from high-end, paid-for software such as Adobe Dreamweaver used by professional web designers and site managers to simpler platforms such as WordPress, Wix, Weebly,, Webflow, Gator and Joomla that are simpler to use, often free and aimed more at amateur or semi-professional web-builders – or journalists who want to spend more time on reporting news than on building and maintaining platforms for distributing it.

  • Targeted audiences: A lot of online journalism is aimed at specific readers or niche interests, excluding the wider online world. This may be to keep their communications limited to people of similar interests or to avoid overloading their website with people who are not really the community at which they are aiming. Newsletters can be a useful and effective way of targeting individuals or niche interests with news stories written specifically for them. Newsletters have traditionally been sent through emails but there are now numerous apps specifically designed to manage your mailouts, whether to readers, campaigns or commercial clients. These include platforms such as Zapier, MailerLite, Mailchimp, Postcards and Sendinblue or – if you want a more professional look to your newsletters – heavyweight, paid-for software such as Adobe InDesign CC.
  • Multiple platforms: Will the app be your only social media platform or one of several? If the app you choose has shortcomings in some features, that might not matter if your other apps are strong in that area. For example, some apps such as Twitter are more text-based, so you might need a second app if you like Twitter for short, punchy news but still want to share lots of visual content. Well-known platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest and, of course, YouTube are well-known for sharing photos and video. If you need feedback and comments, something like Reddit or Quora might fill that niche. And Facebook is a useful “home” for your profile or information about your publication, with links to your content in other apps.

Once you have selected the social media platforms to use, you will need to provide links to content between them. For example, your written article may be on your website or your blog site, but your video is hosted by YouTube. You will need to link them together for your readers. You can do it manually within the content or use one of several apps that manage social media on multiple platforms, such as Hootsuite or Buffer, which charge fees.

On the issue of paid-for platforms versus free apps, remember that while some free apps such as Facebook and Twitter might serve your purposes well, there are usually hidden costs even in free platforms, as we discuss earlier in this article. And there is often some truth in the old saying “you get what you pay for”.

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Social media Best Practice for journalists

We have spent a lot of time talking about why social media is important for journalists and how you can choose the best platforms for producing and distributing your work. Along the way we have discussed the principles of journalists working with social media, with some practical advice on best use.

Here we will bring this into sharper focus by briefly discussing Best Practice in using social media.

There is a lot of information online about the practical use of appropriate social media platforms by journalists. One of the most useful articles is by Brent Barnhart on Sprout Social – describing and also practising with illustrations and examples “Nine best practices of social media and journalism”. They are as follows (Barnhart’s suggestions are in italics within quotes, with The News Manual advice after each one):

  • Put together a personal profile.” It is, after all, social media. And include useful @tags and #tags, plus email addresses or other contact details for your readers to reply to you.
  • Shout-out your colleagues and other organisations in your space.” Mentioning and giving due credit to your colleagues and other organisations in your field not only helps build communities of interest but it advances your interests within a common space and encourages other journalists to promote you. Shares and Follows are quick and useful tools to achieve this, as are tags such as hashtags (#tags) and even at-tags (@tags).
  • Be ethical and mindful when interacting with others.” If you work as an independent journalist a good reputation is a valuable asset. If you work for a media company, poor behaviour can undermine the whole organisation. Whether you are self-employed or on staff, either adopt or create guidelines for conduct or a code of ethics to follow. You can read more about codes of ethics (with examples) in Chapter 58 of The News Manual.
  • Fact-check your stories and sources.” Journalists should abide by standards of professional practice whether working in established media, online editions or social media. For more on fact checking, read Fake news and Trust Chains, in The News Manual.
  • Use threads and Stories to avoid clutter in your followers’ feeds.” Most of the more popular social media platforms have thread functions that can tie posts together for consecutive posts by the first user or for conversations. Threads allow journalists to expand articles beyond the character count limits of apps such as Twitter by uploading consecutive posts. Threads can also break up long articles into “bite-sized” episodes.
  • Publish more than news articles and text-based posts.” While social media posts can act as useful signposts directing readers towards longer articles elsewhere – e.g. on a website or blog – many platforms can also carry additional multimedia elements within themselves. It is increasingly common for journalists to post additional material as backgrounds, such as links to charts or videos “behind the scenes” of the story-gathering process. This helps to personalise the content in a way many readers might find attractive.
  • Boost and discover new stories with hashtags.” Hashtags (or #tags) are another way of connecting your posts to other posts, thereby multiplying your reach beyond your direct audience. When placing a hashtag in your post, the platform searches all its users worldwide to find other instances of that hashtag and connects them together. Popular hashtags are said to be “trending”, so a journalist wanting to gain widespread distribution of topical, up-to-the-minute issues will try to ride the wave of this popularity as it builds.
  • Don’t be afraid to get personal.” While quality journalism has long depended on being objective and detached (i.e. unbiased), there are journalism styles that rely on opening oneself up to ones readers, viewers or listeners. In the latter part of the 20th Century this was called New Journalism. (For more on this, see Putting the writer inside the story.) Many people like to know about the reporter and get some sense of who they are and what they think more generally. Social media is well-suited to this, but beware – mistakes made on social media platforms can have a negative effect on your work and reputation elsewhere.
  • Share posts when your audience is most likely to be engaged.” Newspapers, radio and television networks have long known that there are good and bad times to publish news. Daily newspapers were published either at the start of the day or late afternoon when readers were going home. Most main TV bulletins are scheduled around early evening. Post your stories when your target audience is most likely to see and want to read them but beware of posting when an issue is red hot as your post might just get buried under a flurry of other stories.

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The ethics of the internet

While people under 30 years old cannot remember a life before the internet, today’s version is very different from the world wide web that was launched to the public in 1991 and it is evolving all the time. Users must not only keep pace with changing technologies and techniques but also keep up-to-date with how some issues around information sharing and content exchange have developed while others are still governed by how the media operated for hundreds of years before new media and social media overwhelmed us all.

In the fields of ethics and the law we are continually in transition between the old rules, regulations and social conventions and those of the new media age.

While the core principles behind most legal and ethical issues remain essentially constant and can be found in Volume Three of The News Manual, their application in new media and social media are being adapted in the 21st Century.

We will look at legal issues shortly but for now we will discuss the ethical issues that most affect journalists. They include:

  • Trust and professional standards.
  • Community building and maintenance.
  • Freedom of expression/speech.
  • The “right to know”.
  • Equality of access to communications in democracies.
  • Reporting oppressive regimes.
  • Supporting free markets .

Trust and professional standards
Trust is a cornerstone of good journalism. Trust is one of the main methods people use to organise their life and the way they interact with the world and with other people. Trust – once established – allows people to rely on information they receive as true or false without starting from the beginning with everything they need to know. Trust is one of the essential glues that hold societies together; without it people are just individuals trying to make their own way through life with little or no help. If a journalist provides reliable, truthful information they are usually trusted. There are very few limits on who can call themselves a journalist, so trust is one of the few ways our professionalism can be distinguished. It is also what separates journalism from other so-called news and current affairs content on the internet.

Community building and maintenance
Humans as are essentially social beings; we like being with other people – to greater of lesser extents according to the time and circumstances. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once infamously said “there’s no such thing as society” because her political ideology depended on people climbing over each other to be individually successful, not joining together to help each other. She was wrong in many things but even common sense proved she was wrong in this. People do help each other, sometimes from compassion, sometimes because it also helps themselves. But whatever their reasons, people like living in communities. The internet has changed what it means to be a community. Sometimes communities are people interacting in the physical world, sometimes communicating in the virtual world and often a mixture of the two. So one of the core ethical standards of journalism on the internet is acknowledging the importance and value of building and sustaining positive communities and opposing people who try to harm them.

Freedom of expression and speech
As we discuss elsewhere in The News Manual, while everyone has a basic human right to their own thoughts, there is no absolute right to share those thoughts with other people, especially when that sharing causes the other person harm or distress. Western liberal democracies are founded on this principle: You can think whatever you like but you must not cause serious harm to other people when expressing those thoughts. That is why laws such as defamation and contempt exist, to prevent free speech from becoming oppressive speech. At present, this is a very live issue on the internet and social media, which many ordinary people see as a place where they can say whatever they want without constraints. Before the internet age, mass communications were run by professionals such as journalists who generally understood the laws and limits on free speech. When they transgressed, there were legal steps victims could take for recompense against them. We will look shortly at those laws as they apply to the online world, but for now we state the simple principle: Everyone has the right to their own thoughts and no-one should be unfairly victimised because of the way those thoughts are expressed.

The right to know
In liberal democracies, citizens have a right to know what is happening in their society, so that they can adapt their behaviour, obey the same laws as everyone else and decide at the ballot box who they want to govern them. The “right to know” is what distinguishes democracies from oppressive regimes. It is also one measure by which societies are judged one from another. Even oppressive regimes recognise this principle but they either pretend they are abiding by it or find convoluted arguments why citizens should be kept in the dark, perhaps about matters the regime defines as “state secrets” or “to preserve harmony”. But we live in the information age, where information is the most important raw material of development, so regimes that suppress it from their citizens are economically wasteful and ultimately build nations with weak foundations. Again, the right to know is another aspect of trust. Uninformed citizens do not know whether they can trust their governments and governments show they do not trust their citizens. The expansion of the internet has allowed massively more exchange of information and it is the role of journalists to implement and advocate for their fellow citizens’ right to know.

Equality of access to communications in democracies
This principle follows on from the one above - that citizens have a right to know about decisions that affect their lives. Before the internet, the flow of information was controlled by governments, companies and other organisations. It was left to professional journalists to uncover that information and to share it with their readers, listeners and viewers. Now more and more information is flowing around the world, so although journalists still need to uncover information kept secret we also have an important role in sharing it equitably between people. We can do this by the method we use to distribute information (by choosing the best platforms to reach different audiences) and by the techniques we use for expressing that information (such as language, imagery and storytelling). A good journalist does not report for people like himself or herself but for everyone, whatever their level of education, age, income or language proficiency. This may require the same kind of care and effort as poets who simplify their messages into an essence that can be understood by anyone.

Reporting oppressive regimes
New media and especially social media can be useful tools in a journalist’s reporting on oppressive regimes. Journalists should work in the best interests of their readers, listeners and viewers, not for governments or business if they act contrary to the best interests of citizens and consumers. This is often expressed as “speaking truth to power”. Following on from the basic human rights of all individuals, as mentioned above, journalists often find themselves having to criticise the powerful in the interests of ordinary people in society. New media and social media have introduced new dimensions into this duty of journalists. In some ways it is now easier to share news bypassing government or commercial controls; many internet platforms can get around government-imposed restrictions and firewalls. We have discussed some of these earlier. Unfortunately, in some ways it is more difficult if governments or big businesses control the channels of communication. It is a journalist’s duty to overcome those controls if they are not in the best interests of the people they are meant to serve. If blocked, journalists should create or find other channels through which they can communicate with their audiences.

Supporting open markets
New media are becoming increasingly important in supporting open market mechanisms that lie at the heart of liberal democracies. New media and social media – when they work well – provide platforms for the sharing of knowledge throughout societies. This is not an ideological argument, just recognition that free citizens need accurate, reliable and honest facts upon which to make better, informed decisions about their lives, communities, nations and the world as a whole. This is how democracies and open markets work. Journalists have a crucial role in providing citizens and consumers with this knowledge. As mentioned above, information should be made available to everyone equally to create a level playing field in the worlds of politics and commerce. This principle supports capitalist and socialist societies and every form in between.

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New media and social media ethics

As well as the opportunities and practical limits on what we can do as journalists, there are two other types of constraints – ethical and legal. While they often overlap, there are differences between ethics and law. Ethics is the consideration of what is right and wrong; laws are statements of what is permitted and not permitted in a society. We spend the whole of Volume III of The News Manual exploring this.

While most countries’ laws are written down in black-and-white, there are usually no such written guides to what is ethical or unethical. Individuals must learn these things as they grow up, taught by their parents, teachers, role models and other people in their wider community. Many things can be legal but unethical. Plagiarism, for example, is not of itself illegal in many jurisdictions but it is certainly unethical, especially for journalists. To copy someone else’s work without permission or attribution may not break the laws of copyright but even if it doesn’t it could be unethical not to let one’s readers or listeners know the true source of something, to pretend that it is one’s own work.

Lying is usually illegal if one knowingly makes false or misleading claims for personal gain but it is not always against the law. However, except in special circumstances – such as undertaking undercover research in investigating wrongdoing – lying is unethical behaviour for a journalist. More than that, to take advantage of another person’s misapprehension or ignorance may not be lying but it can certainly be unethical.

These issues have confronted journalists for as long as there have been news media, but new media and social media have introduced some new issues and some new twists on old ethical issues. Many of these arise because online communications can be more impersonal and unverifiable than face-to-face interactions. It is easier to lie or to exploit ignorance. In social media in particular, the use of pseudonyms and other fictitious forms of identity mean people can hide who they really are with little chance of being exposed.

The following are some issues confronting journalists in the online world.

Lies and misinformation
People telling lies and presenting misinformation have long been hazards for journalists. While the internet has made information more available to everyone, sometimes it can make lies harder to detect, especially if the perpetrator is trying to hide. While it is possible to track down a hidden online address, it is not always easy to identify where that address is or who is behind it. There are tools that can disguise email addresses or IP (internet protocol) addresses - we looked at virtual private networks (VPNs) earlier - but they are not as simple to identify as a street address or even a post box number.

Fake news and trust chains
One category of lies and misinformation that has received a lot of attention in recent years is fake news. This is made-up stories that have been written or presented to seem like genuine news, although the term is also used by people to discredit factually-accurate news they don’t like.

We talk in depth about this in our bonus chapter on Fake News, where we also discuss methods of combatting lies and misinformation using Trust Chains and how to use the Loss/Gain test to assess the likelihood someone is lying.

The multiplier effect
Just as new media and social media make it simpler to share information, they also make it easier to spread lies, misinformation and disinformation or just plain mistakes and errors. (For more in the distinctions between these, see the Fake News chapter.)
This tendency of new media and social media to spread information is called the multiplier or amplifier effect. Twitter, for example, can take relatively small news sources and amplify them many times over. A good example of this has been Fox News which, though the largest cable news network in the US, still has only a few million viewers. Even at the height of the COVID crisis coverage in 2020, Fox News’s highest-rated show drew only 4.2 million viewers, meaning that 326 million Americans did NOT watch it. Yet multipliers such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram spread the content of those shows to many millions more Americans than had actually watched it.

The same multiplier effect has long existed with mainstream media, which feed off each other to spread news from individual news organisations to wider audiences. However, this spreading via mainstream media – so-called “reporting on reports” - has usually been done through professional editorial gatekeepers who might put the original story in context. Twitter, Facebook and other social media have no gatekeepers, so the content can reach those wider audiences without context, in an almost original raw form.

The lack of effective filters
The features that make new media and social media so effective, are often what make them most dangerous. As mentioned already, in social media in particular there are few gatekeeper checking that information is accurate. The computer algorithms that regulate social media generally do not identify misinformation or check the truth of what is posted. That is anyway best done by knowledgeable human beings but even when they are present, information can spread so rapidly on the internet that gatekeepers (often called moderators) are always playing catchup. The pressures on journalists to report news as quickly as possible can often lead them to relay information without taking time to check it out. There is no simple solution but, as we suggest in other chapters of The News Manual, if information seems strange or unlikely, it probably is untrue, so the good journalist takes time to check it out. It is a greater sin for journalists to supply false information than to delay reporting news.

Trolls, ranters and other malicious actors
There are many reasons why some people spread untruths or ill-will on new media and social media. In fact, they are so common that a vocabulary has grown up to describe them They include:

Trolls: Trolls are people who post exaggerated or disruptive messages on other people’s social media pages or community forums with the main intention of upsetting people or getting attention for themselves. They may be motivated by a range of factors including boredom, grievance, a warped sense of humour, poor self-esteem or high self-importance. Trolling is a form of cyber bullying or internet bullying. The challenge for journalists is to distinguish anti-social trolls from people who have genuine reasons for posting disruptive or confronting content.

Ranters and ragers: These are people who use online forums, social media groups and website comment sections to express particular obsessions without being challenged. They may be bored or have psychological issues whereby they are unable to make their arguments personally by speaking in public. Sometimes they release pent-up anger or frustration by ranting. While trolls usually make efforts to disguise their identity – because they sense that what they do is wrong – ranters often boast about who they are to bolster their sense of self or to draw people with similar ideas to them.

Spammers: These are individuals or organisation that send irrelevant or unsolicited messages over the internet, typically to large numbers of users, for reasons not usually beneficial to the recipients. Their reasons may range from making money through advertising or by phishing (tricking people into divulging personal financial information), through the perverse satisfaction they gain from spreading malware that attacks the victim’s internet-connected devices to racking up responses as a sign of their own self-worth. Spamming is almost universally disliked by recipients/victims, so journalists should take care how they communicate with people to avoid being regarded as spammers.

Clickbaiters: Clickbait is a form of spam (i.e. tricking people into receiving something they don’t want or getting them to do something they didn’t intend). Clickbait is website content (text or illustration) that attracts people to click on to find out more. Clicking the “bait” activates a link to another page or website supposedly containing further content, though typically this new content is deceptive, sensationalised, or otherwise misleading. Clickbaiters make some money from advertisers and websites eager for visitors, but mainly their income comes from selling the data of the clickers. Sadly, many online media outlets now use clickbait, typically poor quality content with little value to readers apart from occupying their attention for a moment. Media clickbait is a betrayal of the trust readers put in the media organisation to provide genuine content without trickery. In February 2022, Australian billionaire Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest launched criminal proceedings against Facebook for its refusal to remove clickbait scams illegally using his image. Although Facebook told The Guardian Australia: "We're committed to keeping these people off our platform", after three years of fruitless effort Forrest felt forced to start his own prosecution of the social media giant.

The Guardian published a useful article here, written by a clickbait creator frankly describing the system and his own role.

Sock puppeteers: In new media terminology, a sock puppet is an alternative online identity individuals or organisations create to deceive people. [Like a sock a puppeteer might put on their hand pretending it is a creature.] Unlike a pseudonym that people might use to disguise their identity, a sock puppet is a false identity created to gain status, access to a forum or legitimacy for the user’s opinions or products. There are increasing examples of loose groups of online extremists creating grandiose titles to suggest they are legitimate organisations. It is not unusual for such groups to call themselves “institutes”, “study centres”, “armies”, “patriots” etc to manipulate public opinion. Journalists should take extra care to verify the credentials of individuals or organisations they have not encountered before, which might just be sock puppets.

Cyber warriors: These fall into the category of “threat actors”, people or organisations who cause harm to others through the internet for political or ideological reasons. Sometimes these hackers can be “lone wolves” who disrupt internet-linked websites for personal reasons (such as anger with society) but often they are part of a group working to undermine existing online structures for ideological reasons. These can range from loosely informal groups such as the Anonymous hacker group attacking establishment capitalism through to state-sponsored hackers being paid to undermine other countries, such as Russian government attempts to affect the US presidential elections in 2020. Again, if a website or post seems difficult to believe, you should double check its accuracy and its source. There might be a news story there.

Cyber criminals: Another type of threat actors, cyber criminals interfere with the internet to trick people out of money. This can range from fake financial transactions over the internet to stealing personal information so they can rob their victims’ online accounts, send fake billings etc. While many cyber criminals work alone or in small gangs, large online infrastructures have been created to move stolen or illicit funds across international borders around the world.

Inside agents and bad actors: These are people using new media to attack an organisation from the inside. They might be employees disgruntled with their treatment or whistleblowers trying to expose wrong-doing inside their organisation. While whistleblowers have real value to journalists, the challenge is to determine the truth of their leaks and their motive. Legally you might be safe using information provided by a whistleblower, but if they are motivated by malice that could expose you to criminal charges by association with them. Whenever dealing with whistleblowers, journalists should always seek guidance from within their own news organisation, especially its lawyers. You can read more about the role of genuine whistleblowers here and here in The News Manual Now!

Search manipulation: Most website publishers want lots of visitors, to validate their work, share their knowledge or generate income from advertising and data on-selling. That is one reason why search engine optimisation (SEO) has become a large and growing service. For a fee, SEO consultants will work on your website to improve the major methos for getting visitors – having a high ranking in results from Google searches. There is nothing illegal or even wrong with SEO if it is done ethically, i.e. honestly and openly. However, some SEO companies create false or unrealistic search engine rankings by using sneaky redirects, cloaking, internet scraping and a host of other tricks. If you want to know more, Google has produced its own Webmaster Guidelines for SEO best practice, which includes instructions, advice and explanations of all the specialist terms. If you are a journalist who often has to refer to website internet search data for your work, it is well worth a visit.
We discussed earlier some legitimate ways of maximising search engine results for websites, so it is worth mentioning again this Shutterstock article on writing SEO-friendly headlines.

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New media and social media and the law

In this final section we will focus on some important legal issues journalists must remember when using new media and social media. The media laws themselves are explained in greater detail in Volume III of The News Manual, but to summarise briefly, the main ones to bear in mind are:

  • Defamation is to spread bad reports about someone which could do them harm.
  • Contempt is to disregard court orders or interfere with the way the legal system does its job, especially in giving a person to a fair trial.
  • Copyright is the legal right of the creator or copyright owner to control the use of a literary, musical, dramatic or artistic work, more specifically when making or using copies of that work.
  • Secret recording
  • Media regulation covers how governments regulate what media can and cannot do in a country.
  • Media ownership is covered by commercial laws and may be restricted by government regulations.
  • Obscenity is defined in Common Law as words, pictures or actions which are likely to "deprave and corrupt" those likely to see or hear them.
  • Blasphemy is an attack on God or religion that offends believers.
  • Sedition and national security laws are aimed at preventing behaviour such as acts of violence intended to harm an entire community or undermine society as a whole.

In the early years of online media and social media, many owners and users argued that their platforms were different from legacy media such as newspapers and broadcasting so the traditional media laws should not apply to them. Many social media users too, entering into a world of communications they had not experienced before, believed they could do anything they wanted on social media without worrying about the law.

In May 2020, the University of New South Wales published Five Common Social Media Myths and why they are legally wrong.

Increasingly, social media and websites that look like legacy newspapers and broadcasters – or legacy media that use social media platforms and tools – are becoming subject to laws such as defamation, contempt and copyright. The same legal principles that said publishers were responsible for content on their pages or airwaves will increasingly apply to new media and social media, whether the content is from their own staff or from audience feedback.

Comments posted on websites or social media pages
In September 2021, the High Court of Australia rejected an argument from some of the country’s major mainstream media that they were not responsible for comments posted on their Facebook pages. The High Court determined that the media themselves – not Facebook – were responsible for everything posted on their social media pages because they had control over content and could have edited (i.e. moderated) defamatory comments out, just as they would have had those comments been in the Letters column of a newspaper or from a talkback caller on radio.

A number of other cases on different aspects of social media and the law have reached similar conclusions, emphasising that journalists must exercise care wherever their content is published, whether on their traditional outlets such as print or broadcasting, on their websites or on social media pages.

When a journalist allows comments on their own website or social media platform, they become the publisher of them and so are responsible for the content of those comments. To protect yourself, you should not allow other people’s comments to be automatically posted and you should moderate all content on all your sites to cut out comments that might breach any media laws or ethical principles. For more on this, see Volume III of The News Manual.

Media organisations large and small are increasingly confronting this issue. For example, in June 2021, the Canadian national public broadcaster CBC closed off comments on its Facebook pages for News, Current Affairs and Local as a trial to stem what they called “an inordinate amount of hate, abuse, misogyny and threats in the comments” under their stories.

Legal dangers for journalists in new and social media

As mentioned above, it is increasingly clear the courts in many countries will usually view new media and social media in the same way they treated legacy print and broadcasting. We address these legal constraints and defences for journalists in Volume III, so you can revise them before continuing if you wish.

The following are some aspects of specific existing media laws that are worth bearing in mind on new media and social media:

  • Defamation means to spread bad reports about someone which could do them harm. Defamation is an amalgam of two older laws – libel, which was mainly written or visual, and slander which was spoken. Further, libel mostly affected mass media while slander was more person-to-person. New media and social media have broken down those distinctions and created a world where ordinary people say bad things about people (slander) but to millions of other readers over the internet (libel). For journalists there really is only one offence, defamation, and you should know what that involves. Do not expect ordinary people to know the difference or to even understand that things they say casually in their social media posts – as if chatting to a friend - might be legally actionable. Take extra care when reporting on allegations made via social media platforms. While defamation is normally a civil action (one person taking legal action against another), if the harmful words or images are spread with malice (motivated by ill-will), then the defamation can become a criminal offence and punishable by fines or prison. Providing a small glimmer of hope for journalists using social media, courts in Britain and Australia now have to be convinced that defamatory words or pictures have caused “serious harm”. If the post does not reach enough people to cause reputational damage it might not pass that threshold.
  • Contempt is to disregard court orders or in any way interfere with the way the legal system does its job, especially in giving a person to a fair trial. A fundamental principle of democratic legal systems is that people should get a trial free of interference from outside the legal process itself. Journalists should know this and not include anything that might interfere with the accused person’s rights, such as their presumption of innocence, by mentioning, for example, that they have previous convictions – unless this is mentioned in open court. Most ordinary people don’t know this, so they might post on websites or social media information not known by a judge or jury destined to hear the case in court. This would be contempt and punishable by jail. Again, as a journalist you cannot assume ordinary people will take care to not commit contempt, so you must do that for them. New media have introduced another problem in contempt. Professional journalists reporting for newspapers and broadcasting networks usually had support from colleagues and record systems that would warn them if they were likely to commit contempt. People are left more to their own resources nowadays, so do not expect someone to tell you when there is a danger of contempt. That is why you must check before you publish something about a person who is (or might be) part of legal proceedings.
  • Copyright is the legal right of the creator or copyright owner to control the use of their literary, musical, dramatic or artistic work. If someone wants to copy their work or include it in something they are creating (for example, use their music as backing to a video), the user must either get permission from the person who owns the music copyright or pay them a fee to use it. If such use is small-scale and infrequent, copyright owners might overlook infringement, but not on websites and social media posts that reach millions of people. Interestingly, music used via the TikTok app is mostly licenced, so should not infringe copyright. The internet has also made it easier for people to share music, text, illustrations or videos, whereas once they needed to each buy a CD, DVD, book or newspaper. Just because something is more easily obtained and shared does not mean it has less value to the original creator. Streaming someone else’s movie (or parts of their work in your own documentary) can still be an infringement of copyright and therefore illegal. For more on when journalists can use other people’s work without infringing copyright, see “fair dealing” in our chapter on Copyright.
  • Secret recording. It is illegal in many countries (or in specific states within countries) to record people without their knowledge and permission or to broadcast such a recording. While investigative journalists might try to use a “public interest” defence and argue in court that the content of their recordings were very important and there was no other way of exposing wrongdoing, it is up to a judge to choose whether to accept their argument. In some countries journalists are allowed to record people in public places without their permission as long as their recording device is visible and obvious. With cameras and voice recorders on most people’s smart phones, it is becoming increasingly hard for the subjects of unapproved recording and posting to win in court, but it is still possible if the case is high profile or controversial, so always seek legal advice before posting recordings without permission. This is advice from Arts Law in Australia. These are the BBC’s guidelines in Britain. For more on this in the United States, see here and here.
  • Media regulation. Most nations have statutory authorities (i.e. set-up in law) that regulate what the media can and cannot do in their country. In democracies, that regulation tends to be light and only applied where necessary, such as protecting the vulnerable. Authoritarian regimes tend to have a much heavier hand controlling media, including how they portray the government and give voice to opposition. The internet is much newer than traditional media and, in many ways, more difficult to regulate. It is international, a worldwide computer web of wires crossing national borders and not owned by anyone. Some of its major users are, of course, controlled by multinational conglomerates such as Facebook, Google etc, but the internet itself is scarcely regulated at all. Nations regulate the internet as it operates within their borders, especially in aspects such as telecommunications infrastructure, technical standards and harmful content. And increasingly even staunch democracies are struggling with issues like how protect the vulnerable without reducing free speech. Freedom House reported on internet regulation around the world and there is a slightly older survey in Internet Archive. For journalists, the best advice at present is to treat the new media and social media as if they are legacy media and you are unlikely to break regulatory laws.
  • Media ownership. While not explicitly a legal issue for practicing journalists, laws on media ownership can affect their ability to work professionally. The internet has made entry into media easier for more people, so we have seen a growth in online-only news providers. However, it has also led to fragmentation of traditional media markets and is partly responsible for the decline in smaller, alternative legacy print and broadcasting media. This in turn has worked to the advantage of powerful legacy media owners, especially those who choose to move to online platforms. It has also created a space in news content that is being filled by major new media and social media corporations such as Facebook, Twitter, Google etc. For journalists, these changes have led to greater diversity without necessarily increasing jobs in media companies. For their part, many consumers have greater access to diverse, global online media while losing their local news providers. These issues are providing challenges to media regulators – how to balance the interests of news producers and consumers in an ever-shifting media environment. For an example on how this is playing out, see the Australian Centre for Media Transition report on The Impact of Digital Platforms on News and Journalistic Content.
  • Obscenity is defined in Common Law as words, pictures or actions which are likely to "deprave and corrupt" those likely to see or hear them. Obscenity usually involves sex or bodily functions. Most countries have some laws prohibiting obscenity, but all depend on local definitions of what is and is not obscene. Some societies have stricter views than others and impose harsher penalties than others, so the challenge for journalists is to understand what is regarded as obscene in their own societies. In addition, there is now unquestionably more offensive content in circulation on the internet than ever there was in legacy media. That material is often available around the world, making it hard to monitor and control in individual countries. And as mentioned often already, it is no excuse to claim that content not permitted in your country is freely available in another country.
  • Blasphemy is an attack on God or religion that offends believers. Like obscenity, blasphemy varies from country to country. Societies with a strong religious base will probably have laws defining and prohibiting blasphemy while more secular societies may not care much about it. As mentioned in the chapter on Taste and bad taste, even in societies without strong or functioning blasphemy laws there will be people with religious beliefs, so an ethical journalist will also consider whether to offend them unnecessarily.
  • Sedition and national security laws are aimed at preventing behaviour such as acts of violence intended to harm an entire community or undermine society as a whole. In many democracies sedition laws are seldom used while in oppressive regimes they are used frequently to suppress opposition to governments. In democracies, journalists are more likely to face prosecution under national security laws, a host of which were passed since the 9/11 terror attacks in the Unites States that foreshadowed numerous other terrorism incidents around the world. In Australia alone, more than 50 new security laws have been introduced into Parliament since September 2001, many of them so secretive that accused people and their lawyers are not even allowed to tell people if they are being investigated or prosecuted. This poses problems for journalists trying to report on violence or alleged plots. That secrecy extends to social media too, but many users are not aware of the secrecy provisions of the new laws and may unwittingly infringe them. If a story you are covering comes close to terrorism or national security, seek legal advice on how and what you can report. At the time of writing, Australian journalist Julian Assange faces prosecution in the United States for revealing US government illegal acts through his Wikileaks organisation.
  • Others, including electoral laws. There are many other laws around the world restricting journalists using both legacy and new media. Writing news stories and giving opinions is the easy part of journalism. The harder part is gaining the knowledge of what you can and cannot do and say. As one example, in 2021 the Australian Electoral Commission launched legal proceedings against MP Andrew Laming over 35 allegedly fake community Facebook pages he had created during his 2019 election campaign, in contravention of the country’s laws that all election material must contain information about who provided it.


New media and social media bring new techniques and technologies to existing principles and practices of good journalism.

You should choose the most suitable tools for production and publication.

New media mean you can use multiple media to tell each story - text, audio, video and the internet.




Footnote: (sic) is a journalism and literary abbreviation for the Latin phrase sic erat scriptum, "thus was it written". [Return to text]

Footnote: Although MoJo is an abbreviation for both mobile journalism and mobile journalist, we also use it here as an adjective to describe mobile journalism tools and practices. [Return to text]

Footnote: A browser is a software application for retrieving and presenting information on the World Wide Web, usually by finding and presenting web pages. Also called a web browser. Well-known browsers include Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera and Firefox. [Return to text]

Footnote: Revenge porn is the distribution of sexually explicit images or videos of individuals without their consent. [Return to text]

Footnote: Sexting is sending sexual messages, images or videos through technology such as a phone, app, email or webcam. It can be a problem if the recipient does not wish to receive them. [Return to text]

Footnote: Algorithms in media are computer programs that use the automated analysis of statistics obtained from internet usage to solve problems, including choosing how, what and when information is delivered to people en masse and individually. [Return to text]

Footnote: News aggregators collect news and current affairs stories from a range of mostly professional news media and bring them together on one site or app, typically without editing or commenting on content. [Return to text]

Footnote: In examining the digital divide, the Pew Centre points out: “… the growth in mobile technology to date has not been equal, either across nations or within them. People in advanced economies are more likely to have mobile phones – smartphones in particular – and are more likely to use the internet and social media than people in emerging economies. For example, a median of 76% across 18 advanced economies surveyed have smartphones, compared with a median of only 45% in emerging economies.
Smartphone ownership can vary widely by country, even across advanced economies. While around nine-in-ten or more South Koreans, Israelis and Dutch people own smartphones, ownership rates are closer to six-in-ten in other developed nations like Poland, Russia and Greece. In emerging economies, too, smartphone ownership rates vary substantially, from highs of 60% in South Africa and Brazil to just around four-in-ten in Indonesia, Kenya and Nigeria. Among the surveyed countries, ownership is lowest in India, where only 24% report having a smartphone.” [Return to text]

Footnote: Some VPNs have free versions but these often have more limited features than paid-for services. [Return to text]

Footnote: We discuss what makes news in Chapter 1. [Return to text]

Footnote: Some people see live blogging as a single post updated with “microblogs”. We prefer to use the concept of the blog stream, updated with posts (i.e. new segments). With websites built on platforms such as WordPress you can install a live blogging plug-in. [Return to text]

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Index to Chapter 55
  1. New media for journalists
  2. Tools to produce new media
  3. Mobile journalism (MoJo)
  4. Issues to consider
  5. New media platforms
  6. Technologies, traps and bubbles
  7. Social media for journalists
  8. Social media tools for production
  9. Social media security
  10. Social media publishing platforms
  11. Social media best practice
  12. Ethics of the internet
  13. New media and social media law
  14. Summary
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