It may not have been by fancy hologram, but CNN anchor Rick Sanchez Skyped in to a technology education class at N.C. State last week to talk social media and its impact on journalism (Watch the video or read the rough transcript).
Thanks to his show’s use of MySpace, Twitter and Facebook, Sanchez said his viewership is up almost 100 percent since he began hosting the time slot about a year ago. That’s shocking, especially as CNN continues to get dominated by the more partisan MSNBC and Fox News.
While Sanchez said he can directly attribute his show’s success with its use of social media, he said how he uses it is more important.
“There’s no question that when you go into every single newscast, you feel like you’re connected to people and that means that you’ve got to pull yourself into it,” Sanchez told the class. “It can’t be fake. It can’t be a gimmick.”
Other social media mavens have proselytized about the importance of authenticity in social media, but Sanchez said he’s taking that message to the “big suits at CNN” — along with results. He had qualms, for example, about the competition with Ashton Kutcher to reach 1 million Twitter followers.
“The problem was, all along I felt like it was a gimmick. Social media is not a gimmick,” he said. “Social media’s a wonderful opportunity for people to share ideas in a place where for the first time in our lives, we’re able to have conversations with each other using mass media.”
A lot of times, those conversations go beyond mere opinions and lead to an expansion of reporting itself.
News organizations have always been limited by the technology they have on-hand. He gave an example of two murders that occur 20 minutes before a broadcast — one across the street and another several miles away. News organizations will cover the one across the street not because it’s more important, but because it’s more accessible.
“In many ways, we all think that we’re these great scholars that sit around with great ideas and we write all this cool stuff and that makes us really smarty pants. In actuality, much of what we do has very little to do with that. It has more to do with what we can get to so we can bring it to you,” he said. “Social media is transforming what we can get to.”
In Iran, CNN was prohibited from getting on the ground. The regime disabled communication networks and was closely monitoring communications (with the help of Western technology, no less). But social media — especially Twitter — changed that.
“What the Iran elections showed us was that social media can conquer, break down barriers that in the past, we wouldn’t have been able to break down,” Sanchez said.
But using social media doesn’t mean the rules of journalism don’t apply. Days before CNN reported suspicious Coast Guard activity in the Potomac, a student asked Sanchez about the failsafes in place to ensure accuracy in the network’s reporting, especially dealing with so many sources at once.
“It’s the same rules that we’ve followed all along. We vet things in journalism. We vetted before we had social media and we vet them now that we have social media. You don’t put something on the air unless you get two sources that can verify it,” Sanchez said.
For all its strengths, Sanchez warned that social media can also effectively cloister communities, preventing the flow of information. We’ve already seen this happen, whether it’s the nonsense about illegal immigrants’ access to free health care or the nonsense about Barack Obama’s fake birth certificate.
“The danger being that a whole lot of people can be collected and mislead and erroneously given information,” Sanchez said. “If all you do is live in this world where you only read what your friends and the people who think like you are thinking in social media and in blogs, there’s the possibility that many Americans are going to be underserved.”
Despite the risks, Sanchez said the bottom line is that social media isn’t going anywhere.
“The way are people communicating now is changing. We used to really be what we felt like were the ultimate arbiters — we were the ones who made the decisions based on what we wanted to do, what the stories were, how we were going to gather them. And things are now becoming much more democratic. There’s no question of that.”
Thanks to TED graduate teaching assistant Matt Walton for the heads up on this story.