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December 16 2010

18:02

CNN's Joshua Levs Uses Social Media Savvy in Hard, Soft News

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

When Joshua Levs left NPR's Atlanta Bureau to become a correspondent for CNN, he found that something was missing. Specifically, it was time. The rapid pace of TV left him with a fraction of the time he once had to present the many layers of a story. In the end, Levs saw that social media could fill the gap and provide an additional avenue for him to share information and connect.

"I like to give more information," Levs said. "Social media is a way for me to tell you more than I can on air." That's one reason he often closes a story by saying that he'll post additional details on his Twitter account or Facebook page.

One of the most social media-savvy journalists in broadcast news, the Murrow-award winner and Yale grad has carved out a niche both in complex international and economic stories, and fun, offbeat features such as his weekly "Viral Video Rewind" segment. (Anchor Kyra Phillips last month called him one of CNN's "premier Facebookers.") But social media isn't just about getting information out there -- it's also about bringing it in.

"He knows how to strike the right balance between using it as a way to get leads for an ongoing story and using it to share his own thoughts with the world at large," says Sree Sreenivasan, the dean of student affairs at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a professor of digital media who teaches social media workshops. "Unlike Josh, too many journalists only use it as a one-way communications tool."

Iran Protests

One of Levs' most recognizable efforts was his coverage of the violent Iran election protests in June 2009.

"The Iran riots showed us that times have changed," Levs said. "A few Tweets can lead you to discover something that an entire country with soldiers doesn't want you to know. It was a huge change. It was a sign that newsgathering now has a new option."

Even though Iran banned journalists from covering protests over the disputed victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, outraged citizens posted videos of the violent repercussions online. A CNN editorial team worked around the clock reviewing them.

"We would talk and look at the videos that came in and say, 'What do we know about it? Can we verify anything here? Do we recognize the location? Is there anyone at all we can reach to help us understand what's in here?' It went through a pretty complex and important -- but also swift -- vetting process," Levs said.

Finally they decided which videos to air, and which ones needed scenes blurred, like the death of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan.

"That one was particularly shocking ... horrifying," he said. "We studied it to try to gather any information we could about the location, confirm the authenticity, etc. We had native speakers listen to the words being shouted. It's a devastating video to see, and being the one to tell the world about Neda was not an easy task. But it was important."

Levs presented the videos with what he describes as a message of total transparency.

"We would say on the air, 'Look, because of these limitations now inside Iran, there's a lot we cannot tell you; here's what we do know about this video,'" he said.

Election Coverage

Today, social media is a critical daily newsgathering tool. For example, Levs covered voting irregularities in the November elections this year, just as he did in 2008. But this year brought a large-scale social media outreach to viewers.

"We said 'Hey, any information you get, any experiences you have, and questions, problems -- get in touch with us,'" he said.

Watch him in action during the election:

Levs said he's seeing more law enforcement and court officials using social media when big stories break. For example, law enforcement officials used Twitter to update the media during September's hostage stand-off at Discovery Channel headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. Politicians and even federal agencies now use social media.

"There are people out there who don't use Twitter much, or don't know how to use it, and they say, 'You can't report what you see on Twitter,'" he said. "Right -- you can't report what some random person puts on Twitter. But when it's an official agency that's putting information out there, that's what you should be reporting. You make sure that you're dealing with official sourcing and then you grab it and you say, 'They just put this information out there.' That's our new reality. It used to be fast. Now it really is instantaneous."

Just as using social media for newsgathering requires caution, communicating with viewers takes care as well, according to Levs.

He said reporters should be sure they only post items of value that are appropriate and worthy of being in print or on the air.

"It's easy to get lost in the maze on Twitter and on Facebook, so you want to be sure that you keep in mind what your role is -- that's what you're focusing on all the time," he said.

Levs on the Lookout

His job also has a lighter side. Every weekend his "Levs on the Lookout" segment highlights the week's most unique stories. It opens with animation that one of his producers says highlights his "animated personality."

He also features some of the week's most interesting and often funniest viral videos.

"For me, Viral Video Rewind is a weekly dessert," Levs said. "I cover so many hard news stories all week -- sometimes three or four different topics in a single day. But these videos also say a lot about us and our society at this time. They're reflections of what excite and fascinate people. Plus, when you look back at previous generations, you don't just look at the news stories that were above the fold on newspapers. You also look at what movies and shows they were excited about. That's what viral videos are in this era."

Terri Thornton, a former investigative reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

December 04 2009

20:14

Iran Cracks Down on Internet Expression, Bloggers, Journalists

45298227.jpgLast week, the Iranian blogger Sasan Aghaei, who runs the site Azad Tribun, was arrested by intelligence ministry officials after they carried out a search of his Tehran home. It is not known where he was taken. Aghaei is also a reporter for the daily newspaper Farhikhteghan, and he's the third employee of the paper to be arrested since the election. His two other colleagues, Reza Norbakhsh and Masoud Bastani, were both given six-year jail sentences.

The Iranian police recently stepped up their efforts at Internet censorship by creating a special 12-member unit. The unit is under the supervision of the prosecutor general and is charged with acting "against fraud attempts, commercial advertising and false information" and hunting down "insults and lies."

This is just the latest troubling development in a country that is now the biggest imprisoner of cyber-dissidents in the Middle East. Currently, eight Iranian cyber-dissidents are in jail for expressing their opinions online. Among them, four were jailed after the disputed June 12 presidential election. At least 100 journalists and bloggers have been arrested since the election, and 32 are still being held. At the same time, roughly 50 other journalists have been forced to flee the country to escape the relentless repression.

Back in August, Iran adopted a new cyber-crime law that gave the police free reign to crack down on the Internet, and they are taking full advantage of it in order to prevent government opponents from sharing information. So far, the police are blocking thousands of news websites, and putting people in jail.

As the world saw in the aftermath of the election, Twitter and Facebook were used by Iranians to fill a void left by the regime's censorship of journalists. More than a million Iranians took to the streets to demonstrate during Friday prayers on July 17, and they relied on the Internet and mobile phones to help organize and communicate. Local and international journalists were not allowed to cover the event. On top of that censorship, people who used the Internet and social networks to spread news and information are now being accused of spying or "conspiring against the Islamic Republic."

At one point, the regime described the news media as a "means used in an attempt to overthrow the state." It's therefore no surprise to see it ridding itself of these undesired witnesses by jailing them or forcing them to flee the country.

Revolutionary Guard Goes After Bloggers, Others

The Revolutionary Guard, a branch of the Iranian military that's closely linked to the Supreme Leader, is directly involved in online censorship. On June 17, it ordered all website editors to remove "any content which encourages the population to riot or which spreads threats or rumors."

cartoons.jpgSince June 12, at least 10 bloggers have been detained by the authorities. Hadi Heidari, a well-known cartoonist who edits a Persian cartoon website, was arrested in Tehran on October 22. He was attending a religious tribute to political prisoners at the home of Shehaboldin Tabatabai, a leading supporter of the reformist party Participation. Tabatabai was also arrested. Heidari was eventually released in November.

Aside from him, Hassin Assadi Zidabadi, a blogger who also heads a student human rights committee, was arrested in October. Mohammad Davari, the editor of reformist website Etemad Melli, is also in prison. His colleague, Fariba Pajooh, a journalist who also runs a Persian blog, was arrested on August 24, and is still imprisoned at the Evin jail after being summoned to the Tehran Revolutionary Court.

Of course, the most famous journalist to have been arrested and held by the regime is Maziar Bahari. He recently gave an interview to Fareed Zakaria, which you can watch here:

Journalists Fleeing Iran in Droves

The list of people detained and arrested in Iran grows longer every day. Bloggers are being targeted just as much as traditional journalists. Newspapers are now controlled by the regime. As a result, Iran is currently experiencing its biggest exodus of reporters since the 1979 revolution.

Among the fleeing reporters and bloggers, many have been mistreated, tortured or jailed. They leave the country in order to avoid physical violence or another arrest. Most of them escape with the help of smugglers, a process that exposes them to great danger. In the countries where they initially seek refuge, such as Turkey, Iraq or even Afghanistan, they are exposed to more harassment and police surveillance.

The current campaign of brutality, intimidation and censorship in Iran is slowly but surely thinning the ranks of the country's independent journalists and bloggers. They are being forced to choose between saying nothing, speaking out and being jailed, or fleeing the country. In truth, that's no choice at all.

*****

In light of the reporters' exodus, Reporters Without Borders is launching an appeal for financial support for these journalists and bloggers. You can learn more and do your part here.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

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