Can Five Reporters Survive Using Only Facebook and Twitter?

With apologies to The Odd Couple: On Feb. 1, five reporters will be asked to remove themselves from their places of residence and newsrooms. That request came from the RFP French-language public-broadcasters association. Deep down, they wondered if they could do their jobs using only Facebook and Twitter, without access to other Websites, TV, radio or newspapers. With nowhere else to go, they will appear at a farmhouse in France’s southern Perigord region, where they will spend five days. Can five reporters share a farmhouse and survive solely on Facebook and Twitter without driving each other crazy?

According to Agence France-Presse, the five journalists will spend five days at the farmhouse, surrendering their smart phones and equipped solely with mobile phones that cannot connect to the Web and PCs with blank hard drives.

The reporters—from Canadian, French, Belgian and Swiss radio stations—will each go on the air on their respective channels to discuss news that they have found by using only the social-networking site and the microblogging service.

France Inter is one of the participating stations sending a reporter, and senior editor Helene Jouan told AFP:

This experiment will enable us to take a hard look at all of the myths that exist about Facebook and Twitter. Our aim is to show that there are different sources of information and to look at the legitimacy of each of these sources.

France Inter reporter Nour-Eddine Zidane, who will be his company’s representative in the farmhouse, added:

I use them for two different functions. Facebook is for friends, and Twitter I use as an alert system, because you must always be careful about it.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM was unimpressed by the experiment, writing:

The reality is that no single source is ever enough, whether it’s Twitter or a phone call from a source at City Hall. Social media hasn’t changed that. And the most important aspect of new media is that it is (to use an overused word) an ecosystem. News can begin on Twitter, make its way through Facebook and other networks to blogs. and then meet up and merge with reports from the traditional media.

Put simply, the French project is a farce and a sideshow. All it risks “proving” is that some journalists—and their masters (the experiment is being sponsored by the French public broadcasting association)—are as clueless as anyone else about Twitter or Facebook and how those services can benefit journalism. The fact is that journalism has always been a complex system with multiple inputs and multiple sources, and social media just adds to that. Excluding all but one or two of those sources proves nothing.

MG Siegler of TechCrunch poked a little fun at the experiment, as well, writing:

Keep an eye out for reports out of the south of France of celebrities being dead that are actually still alive.

However, Stan Schroeder of Mashable was somewhat intrigued, posting:

It’s actually an intriguing idea. Without the ability to follow the links you see on Twitter and Facebook, what’s left? Most of the time, it’s just tiny tidbits of info with very little substance (since it’s implied that the rest of the information is in the link). Some of the time, the info is completely wrong—shortly after a strong aftershock hit Haiti, I saw one Twitter user frantically urging everyone in Haiti to evacuate because of an upcoming tsunami; it took me a couple of minutes to find out that the info was completely wrong.

However, these French journalists won’t be able to check the validity of anything: They’ll have to analyze others’ tweets and Facebook updates to ascertain what’s true and what’s false. But a lot will also depend on their own journalism standards. Reporting a politician’s death immediately after you see it reported on Twitter would be very irresponsible, even if you can’t verify it with a “trusted” source. The journalists in the experiment will have to establish new standards for what can be trusted. Perhaps it’s a large number of tweets about an incident or a large number of tweets from verified accounts. In any case, we’ll be following this experiment closely; it might yield some very interesting results.