Storyful is a news agency based on an interesting idea that a lot of journalism scholars are talking up – journalists as curators, bringing together and highlighting the best news from social media. It is still in beta, so it’s perhaps premature to criticize the product but when I registered and went to take a look at the first story which interested me it had some flaws which indicate some of the potential problems with this kind of service.
Having recently visited Cambodia, the story on Cambodian child prostitution caught my eye. So what do I get? A prominent photo and trailer from a documentary on the subject which is (as far as I can tell) a product of the mainstream media. An introductory paragraph of information and claims, some of them quite controversial but without sourcing of any kind. A tweet from a Chicago-based comedian pointing to a related story – from the mainstream media. “Some informed opinion on the Cambodian sex industry” is two comments selected out of 84 youtube comments found on a two year old Al Jazeera news item. And lastly there are links to and excerpts from the Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation and Human Rights Watch.
Leaving aside problems of design and implementation (which can be fixed) this suggests two linked problems. First, that because of digital divide and linguistic difficulties, it can be hard to find social media sources for news from outside the industrialized world and that as a result a lot of what one can find eventually links back to the work of (more or less) mainstream journalists rather than citizen journalists. Also see Gonzalez-Bailon (2009) on how the mainstream news organizations and those they link to get most online buzz and Paterson (2007) on how the online news environment is still dominated by output from two major news agencies.
This is not in any way to denigrate the work of those behind storyful and other projects – it’s just to point out that social media does not (yet?) provide would-be news providers easy-to-process rich seams of raw news material unless such material is on subjects that appeal to social media users (see Thelwall 2010) and in countries where social media use is widespread. What’s needed first is more citizen journalistic capacity building in developing countries by organizations like the World Service Trust, OneWorld and Global Voices and more and cheaper internet there (eg you can’t get decent citizen journalism out of the Central African Republic if broadband costs 40 times the average salary there).
PS UK readers may be interested that there is an (as far as I know unrelated) BBC Three programme about sex trafficking in Cambodia coming up next Thursday at 21:00.