Are journalists putting too much trust in social media sources?

The internet and digital communication has had a profound effect on the media industry. Media can be distributed globally in a matter of moments, and the ease with which journalists can find sources has been greatly aided by tools such as Twitter. Need a quote? Then search a hashtag on Twitter or for a blog via Google and find a credible source.

There’s no denying that social and digital media are shaping how journalists work. Rather than quoting in the traditional sense, news articles reference tweets.

There are risks in referring to sources in this manner. Can you trust that they person is who they say they are? Do they really represent those who they claim to be talking on behalf of? Do they know the subject well enough to be viewed as a credible source?

I can imagine that the Arab Spring has been both exciting and infuriating for media. Many countries have not taken too kindly to media entering their borders and reporting on goings-on. There have been some groundbreaking stories coming out of Syria in particular, with journalists putting themselves in harms way to report on the ground.

And then there has been instances of deception. The worst was the case of the Gay Girl in Damascus, who went from being a global source on what was going on in Syria through her blog to…

… an American graduate student named Tom MacMaster who was studying in Scotland.

The hoax may be the worst case example of what can go wrong when using online media for references. What concerns me more is when journalists and media outlets source speakers online. Unless they’re careful, the people who end up becoming the witnesses or the quoted experts are those with the biggest following online.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen online. I was listening to a post on the BBC World a week ago and heard a report about the first Saudi female Olympians. The person being interviewed was a female Saudi journalist residing in New York.

As I sat listening to the report, I could not help but ask myself why was the BBC interviewing a person sitting thousands of miles away from the country under focus. Would this person hold a mainstream opinion? Even some of her facts which she used to corroborate her arguments were flimsy (for example, she said there are no female gyms in Saudi Arabia, which is false).

Being a good journalist is one of the hardest jobs out there, especially in the Middle East where people can often be reticent around media and yet the editor still wants the story filed ASAP. However, I would like to ask my friends in the media to think before they quote from online, and ask themselves if they’re background checking that person, if they need to quote the same person for the Xth time, and if they should quote from online sources when alternatives are available.