2015 Online Commentary, Small Newsroom finalist

Informing Public Debate with Knowledge-Based Journalism

About the Project

The entries provide context and analysis on the complex interplay between social media and major news events, ranging from the Ebola crisis to the Ottawa shootings to the Sydney siege. The examples illustrate how academic knowledge can be brought to bear at times of breaking news to enrich public debate through evidence-based analysis and commentary. The columns address one of the central challenge in public communication today – the need for trusted expert analysis and commentary at times particularly at a time of increased media concentration and economic challenges for the mainstream media.

The columns bring together journalistic flair and academic rigour to provide detailed context to the role of social media at times of breaking news. The article on Ebola draws on social media data to debunk the frenzy on social media over the disease in the US. The column on the Ottawa shootings reveals the patterns of information flows on social media, helping readers and journalists understand the rhythms of real time. The column on Twitter and terrorism reveals how social media inherently favours the guerrilla information tactics of nimble terror groups compared to the slow moving hierarchical institutions of government. The article on the Sydney siege explains why rumours and speculation circulate in the aftermath of a breaking news event, as audiences improvise with whatever fragments of information they have.

Collectively, the four examples offer much needed insight into why and how social media affects how information circulates at times of breaking news, helping to inform both audiences and journalists.

Three of the four examples were published under a Creative Commons license, freely available for use by media outlets, potentially elevating the quality of discourse in the media. The Sydney siege column was republished by the main newspaper in New Zealand, the New Zealand Herald, while the Ebola article was republished by the alternative news website, Raw Story.

The submission is an example of how academics can contribute to the conversation on major news events by sharing knowledge and expertise grounded in years of rigorous inquiry. The writer, Alfred Hermida, is a recognised expert on social media, with his book, Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, receiving the 2015 National Business Book Award in Canada. An award-winning digital media pioneer at the forefront of research into social media and new forms of storytelling, he has a distinguished journalistic pedigree, having honed his craft in telling stories with impact through 16 years at the BBC News. Hermida is uniquely qualified to bridge the divide between academia and the media as the submission illustrate.