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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

When Joshua Levs left NPR’s Atlanta Bureau to become a correspondent for CNN, he found that something was missing. Specifically, it was time. The rapid pace of TV left him with a fraction of the time he once had to present the many layers of a story. In the end, Levs saw that social media could fill the gap and provide an additional avenue for him to share information and connect.

“I like to give more information,” Levs said. “Social media is a way for me to tell you more than I can on air.” That’s one reason he often closes a story by saying that he’ll post additional details on his Twitter account or Facebook page.

One of the most social media-savvy journalists in broadcast news, the Murrow-award winner and Yale grad has carved out a niche both in complex international and economic stories, and fun, offbeat features such as his weekly “Viral Video Rewind” segment. (Anchor Kyra Phillips last month called him one of CNN’s “premier Facebookers.”) But social media isn’t just about getting information out there — it’s also about bringing it in.

“He knows how to strike the right balance between using it as a way to get leads for an ongoing story and using it to share his own thoughts with the world at large,” says Sree Sreenivasan, the dean of student affairs at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a professor of digital media who teaches social media workshops. “Unlike Josh, too many journalists only use it as a one-way communications tool.”

Iran Protests

One of Levs’ most recognizable efforts was his coverage of the violent Iran election protests in June 2009.

“The Iran riots showed us that times have changed,” Levs said. “A few Tweets can lead you to discover something that an entire country with soldiers doesn’t want you to know. It was a huge change. It was a sign that newsgathering now has a new option.”

Even though Iran banned journalists from covering protests over the disputed victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, outraged citizens posted videos of the violent repercussions online. A CNN editorial team worked around the clock reviewing them.

“We would talk and look at the videos that came in and say, ‘What do we know about it? Can we verify anything here? Do we recognize the location? Is there anyone at all we can reach to help us understand what’s in here?’ It went through a pretty complex and important — but also swift — vetting process,” Levs said.

Finally they decided which videos to air, and which ones needed scenes blurred, like the death of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan.

“That one was particularly shocking … horrifying,” he said. “We studied it to try to gather any information we could about the location, confirm the authenticity, etc. We had native speakers listen to the words being shouted. It’s a devastating video to see, and being the one to tell the world about Neda was not an easy task. But it was important.”

Levs presented the videos with what he describes as a message of total transparency.

“We would say on the air, ‘Look, because of these limitations now inside Iran, there’s a lot we cannot tell you; here’s what we do know about this video,’” he said.

Election Coverage

Today, social media is a critical daily newsgathering tool. For example, Levs covered voting irregularities in the November elections this year, just as he did in 2008. But this year brought a large-scale social media outreach to viewers.

“We said ‘Hey, any information you get, any experiences you have, and questions, problems — get in touch with us,’” he said.

Watch him in action during the election:

Levs said he’s seeing more law enforcement and court officials using social media when big stories break. For example, law enforcement officials used Twitter to update the media during September’s hostage stand-off at Discovery Channel headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. Politicians and even federal agencies now use social media.

“There are people out there who don’t use Twitter much, or don’t know how to use it, and they say, ‘You can’t report what you see on Twitter,’” he said. “Right — you can’t report what some random person puts on Twitter. But when it’s an official agency that’s putting information out there, that’s what you should be reporting. You make sure that you’re dealing with official sourcing and then you grab it and you say, ‘They just put this information out there.’ That’s our new reality. It used to be fast. Now it really is instantaneous.”

Just as using social media for newsgathering requires caution, communicating with viewers takes care as well, according to Levs.

He said reporters should be sure they only post items of value that are appropriate and worthy of being in print or on the air.

“It’s easy to get lost in the maze on Twitter and on Facebook, so you want to be sure that you keep in mind what your role is — that’s what you’re focusing on all the time,” he said.

Levs on the Lookout

His job also has a lighter side. Every weekend his “Levs on the Lookout” segment highlights the week’s most unique stories. It opens with animation that one of his producers says highlights his “animated personality.”

He also features some of the week’s most interesting and often funniest viral videos.

“For me, Viral Video Rewind is a weekly dessert,” Levs said. “I cover so many hard news stories all week — sometimes three or four different topics in a single day. But these videos also say a lot about us and our society at this time. They’re reflections of what excite and fascinate people. Plus, when you look back at previous generations, you don’t just look at the news stories that were above the fold on newspapers. You also look at what movies and shows they were excited about. That’s what viral videos are in this era.”

Terri Thornton, a former investigative reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.


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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

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