How Social Media Affects Breaking News

Posted by Sydney on May 3, 2011

Whether your phone pings, honks, rings, or ah-oogas, on Sunday evening, May 1, 2011, the chances are high that your phone alerted you to some breaking news. After receiving a text about the events, I immediately pulled up Huffington Post. There it was, in real time: “Osama Bin Laden is Dead.”A poll on illustrates how others received the news, and it’s pleasantly surprising.

The news from this weekend is unprecedented in 9 1/2 years, as is how a majority of the world accessed that news. Social media replaced main stream media for one of the most high-profile breaking news stories ever. In fact, according to Business Insider, several tweets broke the news: one, an unofficial and stunned update from Keith Urbahn, and a handful of others who live in Abattabad that were tweeting about the events in real time without knowing their significance.

From a personal point of view, after I received the initial text about the news, I relied heavily on Huffington Post, Twitter and Facebook for my updates. It didn’t occur to me that some might find that unnatural; I didn’t want to listen to the banter of newscasters and anchors as they groped for information while we all waited for the President to make his announcement. Social media provided the ability to effectively filter out news from banter as people posted links and updates while allowing people to participate in an ongoing conversation with their networks as the events unfolded.

Not only did social media provide users with a friendly filter, it provided us with a direct connection to each other. Seeing how others reacted to the very same news created a sense of virtual connectedness. Tweets and Facebook updates ranged from conspiracy theories, comedic commentary, tearfulness, and cynicism. There was an outpouring of gratitude to our military, a sense of wonder about how this was pulled off undercover, and of course the class clowns demanding a “long form death certificate.”

We were able to live-stream the President’s announcement, and then we turned to our friends and networks with shock, thoughtfulness, and/or criticism. Not to mention that this flurry of activity occurred when most of the working US was getting ready for bed! We didn’t have to wait for the morning edition or the hot topic discussion around the water cooler. We had access to entertaining, informative and witty banter almost instantly after the event. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out on, even in the streets at Ground Zero and the White House, attendees were tweeting, Facebooking, texting and sharing news updates with their fellows via smartphones and iPads.

We have already observed social media “in action” during other major world events such as Egypt’s revolution and Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. Watch out Main Stream Media: ¬†We might not have time for pundits we don’t know when our friends can become the pundits we trust. Do you think we’re one step closer to becoming a global network of reporters via social media?

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About the author

Sydney is currently the writer and go-to gal for internal operations at SAI Digital. A transplant Roman, she enjoys volunteering her time with various organizations and festivals in downtown Rome. Her favorite color is red, her favorite soda is Dr. Pepper, and her favorite superhero is Wolverine.

1 responses to this article

  1. It’s funny. You ask Mashable readers where they went for news, it’s social. You ask CNN and it’s TV. Because, the folks who would respond in those channels have already shown their preference.

    The most telling is the scene that happened at the Mets-Phillies game (described best here: when folks with no access to traditional channels began shouting “USA! USA!” in the middle of a baseball game.

    I would bet that the majority learned about it from mobile alerts sent out by major networks or tweets of the same. Which may just mean that traditional is changing its mode of distribution. Still relevant, just distributed in a variety of ways.

    You’ve hit on the bigger question, what constitutes journalism? The Pakistani who tweeted the whole affair had no idea what he was tweeting. Is journalism just telling the observations without synthesis, without fact-checking?

    Would be interested to hear from those in journalism (although I’m sure I can guess the answer :)

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