What do journalists use instagram for?

Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember
Involve me, I’ll understand

I’m not one for sharing proverbs or pithy statements; ones  that would look great on a poster with some Kittens or shared in a cursive font on Facebook. But the lines above popped into my head as I was reading about Instagram’s  latest update. Instagram is getting new ‘creative’ editing tools.

These aren’t earth shattering; exposure, saturation etc.  But the general consensus (among my social media circle anyway) was that these tools were a great addition not least because it would limit the number of apps journos needed to use to get a good picture.

At a similar time to the chat around Instagram’s new tools, Sarah Marshall, Social media editor at the Wall street journal, posted about some in-house Instagram training. The post is a really valuable round-up of the use Instagram can get in a newsroom.

The conversation around those two stories, got me pondering the broader question of why journalists use these platforms and it boils down, in general, to these two broad areas:

1. It’s a nifty platform to gather and distribute images with the added advantage of having an audience there watching

Why spend money on a media sharing infrastructure when the likes of Instagram and youtube do that for you? In a mobile world, it’s a robust mobile tool that you don’t have to pay for!

This is a growing trend in newsrooms, echoed in the use of things like DropBox and Google Drive. Using free, easily accessible resources to plug the tech and process gaps in newsrooms.

2. It offers access to user generated content

That’s not a groundbreaking observation.Of course, like any social media network, where the public are so there maybe useful content news orgs can lift create a wider audience for.

These different uses make demands of social media platforms we use. The tension that creates makes for a heady mix of issues.  Professional identity and standards are tested, questioned and sometimes reinforced. Just that idea of using a mobile phone as a tool does that!  At the same time the pressure of sifting through all this material to get that clip that beats the competition to the punch is one that newsrooms feel more each day…how can something so useful be so frustrating?

The conversation around Instagram brought those tensions to the fore in a specific way.   Not only would the new tools make the platform more usable as a tool, it may also help make the content more usable as UGC -As BBC editorial trainer Marc Blank-Settle pointed out (responding to me sharing Sarah’s post)

The general gist of Marc’s point was that the, often indiscriminate, use of the ubiquitous filters and other editing tools on Instagram rendered the content editorially unusable. Marc’s broader point is that a viewer might question the veracity of an image that’s been so obviously edited – if the colours have been changed then what else have they tinkered with? Marc sums it up in a later response to the issue

It’s a fair point. The idea of how much editing should you do on an image is one that has vexed news/doco photographers for ever and a day. Just try talking to a US press photographer about the ethics of posing a shot!

As a ‘trainer’ I have a deal of sympathy with Marc’s view. Training Journo’s to keep to their standards is hard when there are nice toys to play with – especially when the norm is to go ‘express yourself’

Frustration with this kind of thing is something the industry is great at voicing but it’s not so great at articulating the tensions behind the scenes.  We tend to fall back on one of the core uses as a reason – the square aspect ratio or resolution isn’t great or Instagram’s poor search or lack of desktop version means I can’t use it to find pictures easily at work.  But that’s a bit too filtered through a set of local demands. I think that if we want to get the best use of platforms like Instagram then I  think it  really demands that we think critically, and be more open within newsrooms,  about that question of why and how we use it.

That debate is one that’s increasingly important given a growing fixation with ‘native content’. We are being asked to consider ways in which we can bring the production process closer to the consumption process – like creating sites for mobile, on mobiles.  We see some great experiments with creating content specifically for new platforms – stuff that looks like the platform not our website squashed into the space.  But whilst our desire to understand the users and seed the platforms with our content grows is there a risk that we simply open up a wider gap between the two uses?  Are we going to end up contributing the the pool of unusable content? Or is there is an opportunity to take a different approach that unites the two demands?

Educate or emulate?

One observation from those analysisng tweets from the UK riots was how the pictures that were most shared, ones that made it to the top of the retweet  pile, were pictures that resembled news images. In other words, pictures that even though they weren’t created by news orgs, would have happily got the nod from an (picture) editor.

It’s one example, along with the amount of social media traffic that’s driven by news orgs content, that suggests a certain level of ‘news-media literacy’ makes it through into the collective subconscious when it comes to creating and distributing content on social media.  Could journalists do more to ‘educate’ people on Instagram and other platforms as to what constitutes a good picture?

That’s were the pithy proverb came to mind:

Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember
Involve me, I’ll understand

We know that asking social media for UGC is a frustrating task. Asking for something specific will, more often than not result in a huge amount of unrelated content.; “I asked for flooding pictures not pictures of your wet dog! “ That will never go away. But if one of our motivations for using these platforms, for encouraging journalists to get their content on there, is to help inform and develop *new-media literacy, *is that such a bad thing.

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