Social media gives public power to shape the news

By Seth Liss   August 16, 2009

The power of social media became apparent to many this summer when the U.S. State Department asked Twitter to hold off on maintenance to its servers until after Iran’s presidential election protests.

Not only were the citizens of Iran using the medium to organize and report on what was happening in their country, but U.S. residents used social media sites to successfully lobby for increased news coverage of the protests.

People are directly shaping the news through social media tools. They’re reporting and distributing information, and traditional news outlets are paying attention.

For example, when a plane crashed into an Oakland Park home in April, Miami resident Eddie Mujica saw it and snapped a photo — with his phone — of a plume of smoke trailing the plane. He uploaded the photo to Twitter. producers linked to the picture, and reporters talked to Mujica and added his eye-witness account to the story.

On another occasion, Fort Lauderdale resident Adam Stafford sent a message through Twitter that the power had just gone off at the Fort Lauderdale airport. Our reporters verified the outage and posted a story online crediting Stafford for the tip.

At a time when communities have fewer journalists, social media is allowing everyday people to be their eyes and ears.

News organizations have started programs, such as CNN’s iReports, which encourages its website visitors to submit photos, video and stories — some of which are broadcast on-air and many others online. MSNBC, The New York Times and the Huffington Post all have their own citizen journalist sections. The Sun Sentinel takes submissions through e-mail at

Media relations executives, once paid the big bucks to keep an eye on the press, are now also monitoring what is said on social media sites. Corporations like AT&T and FPL are aware that unhappy customers now have a means of getting their message out to a wider audience. Many do damage control by contacting such customers directly to resolve problems.

There are some downsides to giving everyone a platform.

Individuals can make mistakes or be influenced by spin or perks more than institutions with established standards and ethical guidelines. For example, some of the more high-profile Miami Dolphins bloggers said they received free tickets and stadium tours.

There’s a chance that gifts can influence someone’s coverage, even if he or she doesn’t realize it. Social media can also breed false rumors. For instance, someone posted a CNN iReport incorrectly saying Apple executive Steve Jobs had a heart attack. That was not true, and Apple’s stock plunged that day.

Problems aside, social media can give ordinary people the power to improve the quality of their lives and, sometimes, even influence world events.

Seth Liss is’s News Community Manager. Contact him at

Copyright © 2009, South Florida Sun-Sentinel,0,5799442.story