Q&A: BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel on the Importance of Social Media in the Middle East

SocialTimes recently caught up with BuzzFeed Middle East correspondent Sheera Frenkel to discuss her new job, what it’s like working for BuzzFeed compared to more traditional media outlets, how she uses social media and digital tools in the field, and more.

Journalist Sheera Frenkel recently joined social news site BuzzFeed as Middle East correspondent. She previously worked at The Times of London, NPR and McClatchy Newspapers. SocialTimes recently caught up with Frenkel to discuss her new job, what it’s like working for BuzzFeed compared to other media outlets, how she uses social media and digital tools in the field, and more.

Question: What made you decide you’d want to join a social news site like BuzzFeed? What drew you to the position?

Answer: I often found myself reading BuzzFeed in my downtime. I loved their fun, playful and always original approach to news, and I found myself wondering what it would be like to take that approach and apply it to covering a place like the Middle East. People don’t realize how important social media is in the Middle East. At the moment, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is announcing many of their protest actions through Facebook, and Saudi women are fighting against their country’s ban on female drivers by tweeting and uploading videos showing themselves driving around major cities. I knew that BuzzFeed would be able to access – and cover – their lives in an entirely different way.

Q: How is it different working for BuzzFeed?

A: I get to write a much larger range of stories. Instead of writing the day-to-day news roundup that most other agencies and papers focus on, I get to try and find an interesting angle or personal story to focus on.

Q: What major international stories have you been covering for BuzzFeed? Can you give some examples of how you covered these for BuzzFeed as compared to how you would cover for other sites/publications? Which stories of yours have seen the most traffic?

A: I’ve been covering the ongoing political turmoil and upheaval in Egypt, the campaign by Saudi women drivers, the (unfounded) accusations of a “sex jihad” being waged in Syria, and the sale of artifacts from across the Arab world to the West. In almost every case, I could approach the story from a fresher and slightly unconventional angle. For instance, when I wrote about Saudi women trying to break the ban on female driving, I got in touch with them and did traditional interviews, but I also could upload the videos and photos of what they were doing in real time. That story got a ton of traffic – BuzzFeed’s audience really went online to support the women after they read about their campaign.

Q: How do you use social media as part of your job? What platforms and for what purposes do you use them?

A: I use Twitter and Facebook all the time to keep up with what is going on. In country’s like Egypt, Jordan and Libya, news is tweeted long before it reaches any official platform. It’s just important to vet everything. So, I start my day by reading both the traditional news sites and then going to different social sites. It’s also interesting to get feedback on stories. In a country like Egypt, which has many deep divisions at the moment, I often know I’m doing a good job when everyone disagrees with what I write.

Q: What digital tools and apps do you use in the field?

A: I have a bunch of fancy recording apps that let me record interviews and take notes to mark particularly interesting moments or quotes. It’s amazing how much time that saves me later when I’m transcribing something. I also like to take pictures and video – later if I don’t remember how big a crowd was or exactly what order they chanted something in, it’s a great reference. I also love TweetDeck for organizing specific hashtags or journalists I’m following that day. Lastly, I just got a GoPro and am just starting to figure out all sorts of interesting applications for it. Big cameras, especially video, draw all sorts of negative attention at protests and demonstrations, so being able to film something subtly is a huge advantage.