New Frontiers of Newsgathering:
How Foreign Correspondents Use Chat Apps to Cover Political Unrest
Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Colin Agur, and Nicholas Frisch
Published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University
The full text of the report is available courtesy of the Columbia Journalism Review.
Coverage of any breaking news event today often includes footage captured by eyewitnesses and uploaded to the social web. This has changed how journalists and news organizations not only report and produce news, but also how they engage with sources and audiences. In addition to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, chat apps such as WhatsApp and WeChat are a rapidly growing source of information about newsworthy events and an essential link between participants and reporters covering those events.
To look at how journalists at major news organizations use chat apps for newsgathering during political unrest, we focus on a case study of foreign correspondents based in Hong Kong and China during and since the 2014 Umbrella Movement Hong Kong protests. Political unrest in Hong Kong and China often centers around civic rights and government corruption. The Umbrella Movement involved large-scale, sit-in street protests, rejecting proposed changes to Hong Kong’s electoral laws and demanding voting rights for all Hong Kong citizens.
Through a combination of observation and interviews with foreign correspondents, this report explores technology’s implications for reporting political unrest: how and why the protesters and official sources used chat apps, and the ways foreign reporters used chat apps (which are typically closed platforms) for newsgathering, internal coordination, and information sharing.
The key findings of our study include:
- Discussions on chat apps allowed reporters to acquire multimedia information (e.g., pictures, graphics, video, or text), pursue sources from real-life encounters (e.g., with QR code function)* and access private networks, particularly in contexts of censorship and surveillance.
- Protesters and, to a lesser extent, official sources used dedicated media chat groups to communicate political statements.
- “Digital fixers”* allowed reporters with little knowledge of the culture and language to navigate the muddy informational terrains of these mobile applications.
- Journalists used WhatsApp as a way to organize news production across news organizations, and within them.
- Journalists faced similar challenges as they do in social newsgathering on open platforms—for example, in verifying content and identifying echo chambers.
- Over the course of the protests, journalists saw a movement of users away from public networks to private chat apps. This was mainly because young, mobile people prefer these applications for ease of use, or because of issues such as privacy and surveillance.
- Reporters suggested that the fundamental process of reporting remains largely unchanged from one-to-one newsgathering on the phone or by email (e.g., get background, get contacts). Rather, it is the technology that has changed.