An Interview with Andy Carvin – Twitter as an Open Source Newsroom

Last September Fergal Gallagher was able to interview Andy Carvin just before he gave his talk at the Truth in News Symposium held at Dublin City University. We have transcribed the audio from his interview and the original recording is available at the bottom of this page.

Fergal Gallagher: I am here with Andy Carvin, Senior Strategist and NPR, National Public Radio. (NB: Andy has since moved to First Look Media.) We are at the DCU media conference. Andy hasn’t spoken yet but his name has already come up quite a lot for the way he uses social media to cover stories. Maybe you could talk about what you do.

Andy Carvin: My primary job at NPR, essentially, is to experiment with new ways of reporting. Especially when it comes to collaborative reporting with the public…Over the years I have done a variety of experiments on Twitter… but during the Arab Spring things really came together because we reached a critical mass of people who were using social media in certain parts of the world and were willing to serve as eye-witnesses to these events.

…I use my Twitter account, essentially as an open source newsroom. Rather than being a newswire service where I am constantly saying, “This has happened. This hasn’t happened.” blah, blah, blah, blah, I am asking people, “What do you know about this? Have you heard about this? Was there actually a chemical attack yesterday? Are there any videos yet? How do we know those videos aren’t from somewhere else?”

And so my Twitter followers will work with me to investigate certain things that we think are interesting. Often, the stuff we do are ideas they come up with. So, for example, during the Arab Spring a number of news outlets in the region started to report that Israel was supplying weapons to Muammar Gaddafi which seemed a little insane at the time given that they were arch-enemies. But, nonetheless, it was being reported.

They were reporting it because they found a mortar shell that had what looked like a Star of David on it, a six pointed star. Well, in less than an hour my Twitter followers were able to prove that’s a standard symbol that has been used for over a hundred years to mark these types of shells as star shells that you shoot up to light up the sky. They are illumination rounds so had nothing to do with Israel. The same symbol could be found on mortars and artillery from World War 1. So, it is things like that, we stumble on these questions that are being reported. One question leads to another and we just dig in further.

FG: On that point there is a guy in the UK who does something similar on Syria.

AC: He goes by the name of Ron Moses but his real name is Elliot Higgins. He is a fascinating guy because he was just some unemployed bloke who had a lot of free time on his hands. So he started paying attention to Syria and he has become the civilian expert on arms in and out of Syria. It’s incredible what he’s done. So, I’ve worked with him on a few occasions and we swap information.

FG: It’s basically a new way of gathering news that traditionally was done behind closed doors whereas you are making, as you say, an open, public newsroom. I know you have had some criticism from traditional journalists who say you tweet something or ask someone, “Is this true?” And it later turns out to be false, whether it’s someone else or your followers who have proved it to be false. What do you say to people who say, “You shouldn’t be tweeting that if you are not sure if it is true,” in case people don’t see the correction?

AC: Well, I got that a lot after the Newtown massacre, at that elementary school in Connecticut. Michael Wolf wrote a fairly scathing editorial about me for The Guardian but I wrote back and paragraph by paragraph I told him he is completely misunderstanding what I do. In fact, the examples he cited of where I was sharing rumours I was actually sending out tweets reporting what U.S. broadcasters were claiming on air and asking what evidence people knew about them. So, at one point there was a report that a purple van had been surrounded by police and I hadn’t seen that reported anywhere else but one of the U.S. networks cited it. So I asked people, “What do you know about this?” We tried to figure it out.

In the context of how I work it makes sense for the people that follow me. And the folks that have criticised me, they understand that but don’t feel comfortable with it. I can’t force them to change their outlook on how journalism and reporting happens. The only way I can judge it is if the news organisation I am working for is happy with how I am doing it and if our ombudsman has any problem with how I am doing it. In each case the response has been very positive.

FG: Since you have been doing this there has been many more journalists, and non-journalists, who have been copying that technique.

AC: It is becoming more common in different ways. People may not do it full time for their reporting but there are times when the public knows more than you do so why not ask them for help. I certainly wouldn’t want to pretend that this the way we should be reporting in all circumstances because probably the majority of the time you are reporting on other stories it may not be appropriate.

FG: I guess a key thing with the Arab Spring was that you didn’t have foreign correspondents on the ground.

AC: The two things that really went into play there was first in many cases you didn’t have foreign correspondents on the ground and that was especially true for Libya early on and for a lot of Syria. But on the other hand you had people living there who were willing to capture what was happening and upload it or share it some form.

If you can find a critical mass of these people and cross-reference what they’re saying, somewhere in the middle of that is the truth. So, if there is a large protest and, let’s say, shooting starts to happen, one person may report it on Twitter but they are going to have a very limited field of view around them and they may not totally understand what had just happened. Whereas if I have been able to identify thirty people across that same area, spread out all over, and then monitor what they are saying simultaneously you can, in some way, triangulate the truth from that.

FG: News budgets are more and more limited so do you think your technique could be a future for news? Instead of sending someone out who is expensive you do this kind of reporting.

AC: I really hope not because it is a completely different style of reporting. Some of the most powerful reporting that has come out of Syria has been when reporters have gone in and been able look people directly in the eye to talk about relatives that have died or have been wounded and to be able to put together the context of that in a broader sense. And that can be very hard to do remotely. I would hate to see my methods used as an excuse to cut back on foreign reporting or any type of reporting for that matter. I think they complement each other very well.

At one point, I ended up going to Cairo for an event. There was a big altercation in Tahrir Square that evening that came out of nowhere. They hadn’t had one for several months at that point.

So, I went with a small group of protestors and they brought me as close as they could get without bringing me into the square as they were a little paranoid about my safety. We are surrounded by police. There is tear-gas going off and people with blood running down their hair. So, I am able to observe all these things going on in my immediate vicinity but I still real didn’t have an understanding of what was going on. I didn’t know what was happening at the centre of Tahrir or on the other side of it. And the only way I was personally able to fill in those pieces was when I was able to get a signal on my phone again and could look on Twitter and see what all my contacts were saying.

So I end up becoming one node out of many that paints a bigger picture. But at the same time, one correspondent at that location serving as that single node can still tell extremely vivid and powerful stories.

FG: It’s funny that although you were there you were still doing journalism as if you were sitting at home in the U.S.

AC: It is funny there are times that I am traveling and there is something happening in that city and I almost would rather be back at my hotel working on it because there is only so much I can do caught in the middle of it.

FG: Where do you see things going in the immediate future? Will there still be print in five or ten years?

AC: It is phasing out in different places at different speeds. I am never comfortable making a prediction with these things. Many newspapers in the U.S. have either switched entirely to digital or have gone out of business or have cut back the amount they are producing on paper. So, the trend isn’t favourable for them but at the same time they are beginning to do things online that are profitable.

I’ve never been a fan of pay-walls myself but the New York Times is making a profit on their pay-wall. So, there are different economic models.

I think the key point here is that journalism isn’t dying. It’s the economic models that are changing and in that process some of those economic models are going to fade away and they just happen to be ones that we cling onto very closely because they have worked so well for a very long time. And in some cases we haven’t planned for that transition very well. But I think there are some papers that will continue to do what they are doing because they have an audience that really loves what they do.

As long as the subscribers are willing to pay and advertisers are willing to pay to fill a demographic we’ll have a New York Times and an Economist and others. Whatever format it is in people will use it because they value the content. So the key thing is differentiating yourself with the content.

Banner and top picture By Ahmed Abd El-Fatah from Egypt [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Main body picture By Lilian Wagdy (DSC_9315 Uploaded by The Egyptian Liberal) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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