The rapid rise of the online social community Reddit has born out a phenomenon that has captured a large swath of the Internet: the “Ask Me Anything” or AmA. Everyone from Icelandic indie band Sigur Ros to President Barack Obama has hopped onto Reddit to answer user questions about their lives, their dreams and their goals. It’s a growing medium for communities to connect to a heretofore unreachable public figure, and every once in a while it creates a major teaching moment.
That happened today when NPR’s Andy Carvin — a senior strategist and reporter whose work on the Arab Spring, primarily through his Twitter account @acarvin, led the Washington Post to call him a “one-man Twitter news Bureau” — dispensed helpful advice about digital journalism and production on stories that occur thousands of miles away. His hour-long AMA gave great insights into his own reporting style, and the toll of covering the Arab Spring.
Here’s a roundup of some of the highlights.
On Authenticating Video
The most import thing to do is look for context. Is there something visible in the background that can be IDed, like a building or other landmark? If people are speaking, what kind of accents do they have? If there are weapons involved, what kinds are they? Does the timestamp of the video match the weather forecast, or the location of the sun and shadows? Etc, etc. Fortunately, I have a lot of Twitter followers who love this type of detective work.
On Mixing Personal Social Media with News on Twitter
My very first tweet was about eating pita and hummus – not exactly breaking news. Over the years, the account began to include more and more news-related tweets – and my followers seemed to like the mix. Also, I think it’s healthy to remind people that I’m not a bot – I’m just another guy on Twitter, hanging out with everyone else, trying to figure out what’s going on in the world.
On Freelancing in a War Zone
Going on your own is an extreme risk, especially if you lack experience or local language/cultural skills. And freelancers in general don’t often have the same organizational muscle – ie an entire news org – to back them up if they get caught in a dangerous situation.
On Verifying Twitter Sources
Whenever possible, I try to start with someone I already know and trust. I then look at their account and see who they’re following, and how long they’ve followed them. The longer they’ve been doing it, the more likely they know each other. I then repeat the process with some of those people. Once I’ve done that, I watch their accounts carefully to see what they’re doing. Are they uploading new footage with new timetamps [sic] or geotagging? Do they clumsily throw around words like “BREAKING” or “CONFIRMED” in all caps, in every tweet? Are they followed by people I know, who I can ask to vouch for them? And so on.
On the Western View of Arab Spring
Western media did more than its fair share of romanticizing the Arab Spring, including places like Tahrir Square. Yes, historic things were happening before our eyes, but it’s easy to get swept up by romantic narratives, or over-rely on sources who speak English and are well educated. I think we also often oversimplified how complex these situations are. It’s hard to understand any revolution with nothing but soundbites.
On the Trauma of Reporting War
Most of the time I report remotely. I have no training as a combat reporter, and I promised my family I wouldn’t go places while bullets were still flying. Having said that, it’s an unstable area – I nearly got stuck in a major battle in Tahrir Square about 18 months ago, and I had stoned Libyan rebels fire anti-aircraft guns directly over my car just for the lulz.
What freaks me out is when people I know – sources, reporters, etc – are in a dangerous situation and are talking about it in real time. I’ve known several people who were killed during the Arab Spring, and many more who had very close calls. It can be very harrowing following along with them remotely.
On the Superficiality of Western Social Media
I’d also argue that plenty of people in the Arab world tweet about cats, TV shows, bad customer service, and what they had for breakfast. It’s just we focus on the newsworthy stuff they produce when it happens. And most of the time in the US, the average person isn’t caught in the middle of a big news story, so they talk about whatever interests them. But when news does happen, many westerns jump in and help cover it.
What do you think of Carvin’s AmA? Let us know in the comments.