Because we live in an age when social media sites are our daily bread, it seems natural to turn to them as resources for writing a story. When I wrote a piece about the popularity of Facebook all over the world, I went straight to Facebook to get the user interviews I needed. And when I wrote about the Brazilian success of social networking site Orkut, I simply joined the community and introduced myself to potential subjects.

Lately my favorite social media reporting tool is Twitter, where I ask questions and listen in on chatter that helps me get story ideas. And others are using services like these to do their jobs too. Last summer, a reporter from the UK’s Sky News reported on a protest live relying only on social media tools and his mobile phone. And JD Lasica suggested that enlisting a group of readers to provide feedback on stories using Twitter might help journalists do their jobs better.

But with this ease of access to information and individuals comes an inherent risk. Online communities — like villages and workplaces — are breeding grounds for rumors and speculation. And the nature of some of the tools we use might lead to inconsistent, incomplete and all-around incorrect information. Using social media tools to write a story has both its pros and cons, but with a little common sense and professionalism these tools can be very helpful.

My Social Media Reporting Tools

The open and constantly-updated nature of some social media services can be a dream for reporting. For example, micro-blogging platform Twitter can give me real-time updates on news that is constantly changing. An early use of Twitter as a reporting tool was when users began spontaneously updating about the bridge collapse in Minnesota. Subsequent Twitter successes include user coverage of the Southern California Fires and the Iowa Caucuses.

When the results were coming in for the New Hampshire primaries, I was watching them on a plane. When I landed, I didn’t have to miss a thing, as I simply went to Twitter and followed my contacts’ updates. They were all talking about the same thing and I was able to tell not only who was winning — one friend let me know Hillary was leading with 39% — but which candidates my group of “friends” preferred (a toss-up between Obama and Clinton).

To go beyond my smaller group and into the wider community, I rely on sites like Politweets for searching chatter about the candidates, or Tweetscan for other topics.

Political Twitter Conversation on Politweets

Twitter can also help reporters get access to sources for a story, something that isn’t always easy. The service acts as what some call a “gate jumper.” Because of the way it’s set up — open communication in real time — it’s quite easy to add someone “important” (say, a tech business executive who might not give you the time of day in another context) as a “friend” and just ask him or her a question by writing “@username.” You might be surprised how open people are to communicating on Twitter, even if they ignore emails. If they don’t respond, chances are someone in your chain of Twitter contacts knows someone who knows someone else who can get in touch with the VIP.

Social networking giant Facebook can be a great place to find information about a story you’re writing. If you can get past all the vampire biting and food-fighting it’s actually a really good place to poll people for public opinion. Granted, this is very unscientific, but you can get a read on the pulse of a certain group of people. If you’re looking for something more specific, you can also ask your entire network a question.

For instance I went online and asked my Facebook friends why it was that Facebook is so popular overseas. Because many of the people I’m connected to live outside of the country, their feedback was particularly valuable to me and served as a starting point for my research. I was also able to easily search out interview subjects in the regions that had recently seen more growth in Facebook usage.

Because I was writing about Facebook, it was easy to find willing voices, but one could easily do the same thing when writing a story about something entirely different, using Facebook’s search engine. An added bonus is that the structure of the Facebook messaging platform is also very helpful in interviewing people. It’s set up like as a threaded conversation, so I can see a chronological view of the questions I asked and their responses.

Asking Questions on Facebook

Like Twitter, Facebook, which is now more open, provides new ways to connect with people who you might not be able to get to easily otherwise. For instance, if you were looking to interview the CEO of an Internet company and he has a profile on Facebook (many do), I might send him a message there and — after he checks out my profile — receive a personal response. I might not, but it’s worth a a try and if I make contact, it’s much easier than going through requests to the company’s PR team.

YouTube and Flickr
As a blogger, one of my beats is Latin American politics. U.S. mainstream media does an infamously bad job at covering the nuances of stories related to this topic, and I often find myself having to dig deeper into news in Spanish and Portuguese to get the whole story. YouTube has proved to be an invaluable tool for researching stories that aren’t covered here in broadcast media.

I can tune into Hugo Chavez’s latest weekly television address and hear what he is actually saying, rather than the media’s interpretation of his comments. But if I want, I can also find some footage from local news to see how the information is being presented, or even some user-created videos with man-on-the-street opinions. While each one of these elements alone might not do much for my reporting, taking it all in helps me understand the issues at hand a lot better.

Political Photos on Flickr

When covering a topic that is of great importance to the local community but ignored by U.S. mainstream media — such as the recent presidential elections in Guatemala — I often turn to the photo-sharing community Flickr for images of what’s going on there. A single photo I found on Flickr gave me a bit more insight into how at least some of Guatemala’s citizens feel about one of the candidates: that the retired army general candidate represented a frightening reminder of the country’s bloody history of civil war.

Pitfalls of Reporting Using Social Media

Most journalists pride themselves on the accuracy of their stories, a result of rigorous fact-checking and verifying of information. But in the age of online media, writers feel the pressure to compete with the speed with which information moves on the Internet, sometimes finding themselves in a dilemma.

The emergence of MySpace as a source for reporters covering entertainment news is something I’ve only recently paid any mind to. Often, when a television reality show ends, journalists immediately search for an online profile of one of the participants to be able to get some additional dirt on their lives. The hit MTV reality show “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila” was subject of much Internet chatter as the star broke off her relationship with the winner shortly after the finale. Some journalists went straight to the source: the jilted contestant’s MySpace page. When I went to check out the information myself, I found that there are two pages of profiles for the same guy — many of which look pretty real, and all claiming something different. If I were writing a story about this, how would I know which one to trust?

Reality Show Doppelgangers on MySpace

Now perhaps no real harm is done in bad reporting of a silly reality show, but this kind of dilemma can have serious repercussions if the person involved is important enough. Such is the case of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of slain former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Back in the old days, after a major event like Bhutto’s assassination, a reporter might jump through hoops trying to score an interview with a member of her family. These days it seems that at least some reporters can’t be bothered, and turned immediately to social networks to see if they could gain insight into his thoughts.

Several big news companies — among them London’s Telegraph and Agence France Presse — lifted quotes about Islam from her son’s Facebook profile. The only problem was that the profile was fake. In this case, traditional media in all its experience didn’t know that social media sources can be a minefield, and it exploded in their faces. Had the “joke” not been discovered sooner or the fake quotes more inflammatory, this could have had serious political implications.

Similar problems could emerge from using tools like Twitter to follow a story. On Twitter, it’s quite common to start to read a back-and-forth exchange with a few people about a certain topic, only to find yourself lost because the conversation just speeds by, obscured by the clutter of other people’s updates. And because it’s like a conversation in a bar, people are uncensored, letting information go left and right without thinking. Facts and rumors come in bits and pieces and it wouldn’t be hard for an inexperienced writer to be misinformed by the information gathered there.

Regardless of whether or not writers and journalists decide to take advantage of social media sites, users will continue to use them to spread news. Evidence of that was seen on Twitter this week, which ground to a halt under the weight of all the constant updating at Apple’s Macworld conference, especially during Steve Jobs’ keynote speech. The traffic problem was likely not a result of people using the tool to report live from Macworld, but rather the thousands of us who were a captive audience outside the conference.

And most of us were contributing to the misinformation ourselves, slinging theories and links to other people’s theories out to the community. All of this is done with the best of intentions, but it could lead a journalist down a path of frustration. In the end, it boils down to knowing how to get the most out of these tools while being wary of them, and sticking to the rule that far pre-dates the Internet: find the truth behind the story and check your facts.

What do you think? Are social media sites a good source for information for journalists writing stories, or are they inherently dangerous when it comes to getting factual information? Do you use any of these sites for research in your own job? Why or why not?

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

Social network faces photo by luc legay on Flickr