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Coming to a phone near you: Six examples of how social media took the starring role in the news

Until Twitter came along and blew the lid off news coverage of the Iranian elections last year, many of us were scratching our heads wondering just how social media could help journalism be more interesting.

Sure, Facebook helped you market a story to your buddies and you could pick up a story or two on Twitter, but what else was there? Then the Iranians, armed with cellphones, beat the pants off the international news organisations covering the June protests in Tehran and we all sat up and took notice.

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In South Africa, social media also steals the spotlight from traditional media from time-to-time. Here are my favourite examples:

1. Viral sensation

When AWB leader Andre Visagie stormed out of a live e.tv panel discussion this month, it went viral in a big way with every news organisation, blogger and his dog embedding it. At last count just one iteration of the clip had had 267 000 hits on YouTube and the hilarious “Don’t Touch me on my Studio” clip was also quickly remixed into a number of spoof vids. On the very same day ANC Youth League president Julius Malema threw BBC hack Jonah Fisher out of a press conference – another a big hit – but the prize for enduring appeal must surely go to parliament’s finance portfolio committee chairman, Nhlanhla Nene, who vanished behind a desk after his chair collapsed on live TV in 2008. It was inevitable that someone at the SABC would release the video on YouTube and Zoopy. Word got around on Facebook and very soon the rather un-amused Nene was an internet celebrity. Even venerable institutions such as the BBC covered it (without being able to resist embedding the vid themselves, of course).

Today one version of the Nene clip has had more than 3.1-million views on YouTube. We, of course, can’t resist putting it up again:

VERDICT: Content that captures the imagination takes on a life of its own, thanks to the power of social media and networks. Media organisations can learn from this.

2. Sack me!

When a fire raged across Devil’s Peak in Cape Town one night in March last year, the big news websites such as IOL, News24 and The Times were laughably far behind the local bloggers and Twitter users. While the salaried hacks were snoozing in their beds, the bloggers were standing on their rooftops, taking photos and running down to their laptops to convey all the drama.

“The fire engines are pouring out of the fire station on Roeland Street,” wrote blogger Chris M. “The sirens are going crazy, my flat smells of smoke and I can’t open the windows, because bits and pieces of ash are flying too quickly through the air!

Compelling stuff – and then there were the riveting tweets by panicked people being ordered out of their homes by emergency services in Cape Town’s City Bowl as the fire came closer. My favourite came from @geekrebel: “Oh sack! Fire is 3 blocks up! We’re evacuating our house now! Now… about a hotel where we can take dog…” (Here’s a tip: Type “fuck” into your phone and see what predicative text makes of it.)

News24 seemed to beat the rest of the big boys and finally got something up at round about 10.30am the next day.

VERDICT: Social networks like Twitter and independent bloggers show how anyone can be a witness to news and convey the power of their own story – even with a tweet.

3. Dinosaur huge

In January, a Zimbabwean on holiday in Cape Town was killed by a Great White in Fish Hoek and a number of witnesses tweeted the horror attack instantly. The Twitter grapevine alerted journalists, who sprung into action, and Fish Hoek resident Gregg Coppen became the most quoted witness of the event after tweeting: “Holy shit. We just saw a GIGANTIC shark eat what looked like a person in front of our house in Fishoek, Unbelievable.”

A few minutes later he texted: “That shark was HUGE. Like dinosaur huge”. That last phrase made it into a couple of headlines in the daily rags – an excellent example of how Twitter allows ordinary people to capture powerfully the drama of an event as it unfolds. Had a reporter tracked down Mr Coppen in the pre-tweet world, it would have been many hours after the attack and he probably would been quoted saying something like: “We were really stunned to see the attack…The shark was really big.” Not half as expressive…

VERDICT: Once again social networks like Twitter show how anyone can be a witness to news and convey the power of their own story – even with a slightly uncouth tweet.

4. ET is dead

Eugene Terre’Blanche’s death on a dead quiet Saturday night over the Easter weekend was broken on Twitter by blogger FromTheOld and picked up by 702s’s Aki Anastasiou and then Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes tweeted it. In an analysis of the how the news of ET’s death got out, Memeburn’s Simon Hartley reported the breaking news went viral fast, with activity only tapering off in the early hours of Sunday morning. Most of the Sunday papers remade their papers and got the story on to their front pages for the next morning. Maybe they didn’t break it, but they had all the gory details and put it in the context of Julius Malema’s “Kill the Boer” antics.

VERDICT: Hartley pronounces this lesson for traditional media: “Predict the news cycle, don’t run with it and try and compete with Twitter, rather use Twitter for what it is, and then offer what Twitter can’t – carefully crafted, hard-hitting paragraphs of insight and analysis of the event”. I agree up to a point but feel the Sunday papers could have got value out of tweeting the breaking news themselves. (See Number 6 below)

5. Oops

There was much hand-wringing about journalism ethics and privacy on social networks when Tokyo Sexwale’s niece landed up in The Citizen newspaper after she mouthed off about the president on Facebook in February.

“Why does our President display such stereotypical bad behaviour of a randy black womaniser?” wrote Kananelo Sexwale after the Jacob Zuma “Babygate” story broke. “I feel ashamed.”

A mini-media storm ensued, with media commentators questioning whether plonking a Facebook comment on to the printed page was ambush journalism and there were arguments for and against the expectations of privacy on social media sites. Sexwale later apologised to Zuma but not before the nation got a fascinatingly frank glimpse of a BEE blueblood’s opinion on our leader’s controversial behaviour.

VERDICT: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says privacy is dead. He’s right.

6. Objection!

The Daily Dispatch newspaper in East London sent their online news editor off to cover a murder trial on Twitter last year. The case was a gobsmacker in its own right – a mother who strangled her two daughters to death before trying unsucessfully to kill herself. The tweets followed the cut and thrust of the court action in real time. It was an experiment and not all liked it, but hats off to the little paper for venturing into new territory. Here is Dispatch editor Andrew Trench’s analysis of the experiment.

VERDICT: Social media gives traditional media the chance to experiment. Even a newspaper can do live breaking news.

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