Apr 24, 2013 · 7 minutes

Last week, as the social media frenzy surrounding the events in Boston reached a fever pitch, The Awl's Choire Sicha posed the question, "Is Your Social Media Editor Destroying Your News Organization Today?" If you haven't read it, it goes something like this: "Journalists who sit on a computer all day Tweeting everything they see on Reddit and Twitter and TV are not doing 'work.' This doesn't bring value to readers or news organizations. Or maybe it does, I don't know."

The reaction from Twitter's informal cabal of social media editors and producers to this biting (yet not-exactly-mean-spirited) attack on their livelihoods was fairly nuanced, with responses ranging from full-hearted praise to "@choire has no idea what he's talking about." Maybe this ambivalence is owing to the somewhat unsure thesis of the post. Or maybe social media editors and producers (myself included) just love to see their work reflected back at them, even if the reflection is a little ugly.

But while I enjoyed the post, if only because reading articles about "social media's response to Boston" was bit of a coping mechanism last week, I think Sicha started with the wrong question. Before we determine if your social media editor is destroying your news organization, we might want to ask ourselves, "What is a social media editor?"

Obviously we've had a working definition for "social media editors" for a while now. They run the social channels: Twitter and Facebook and the like. They try their best to optimize content for the social Web. They teach coworkers how to use these channels more efficiently. They try to get readers involved by crowdsourcing tips, photos, and opinions. And there's a growing consensus that having a social media editor is not inherently detrimental to a news organization and to readers.

But if you make a Twitter list and fill it with social media editors from major news organizations, you'll see a lot more than responsible crowdsourcing and links to content from their respective employers. You'll find an exhausting yet occasionally sublime stream of jokes both topical and "weird," Reddit links, naked Retweets, and info-blasts that often lack context. Tweets that link back to a journalist's news organization are only one component of the stream. Even during breaking news events, it's always the same proportional makeup of Tweets, just with a lot more focus, repetition, and volume during big events.

The result is undeniably addicting, at least for the participants. But as Sicha wonders, does it serve news organizations well? More importantly, does it serve readers well? And is there another way?

For answers to some of these questions, I reached out to Daily Beast senior editor Brian Ries, one of the social media journalists singled out in Sicha's piece. Sicha wrote that Ries "just pummeled Twitter relentlessly," adding, "What does anyone gain? It looks like work, maybe, but it's not. (Is it? Maybe it is!) Even so, he was doing a better job than most of the people on TV."

So I asked Ries: What did people gain?

"I heard from both friends in Boston and random followers that they really appreciated my near-constant coverage of the latest reports coming across social media during the man-hunt," Ries told me in an email. "There was a flood of new information coming from reporters, organizations, and the authorities, and my rapid tweeting of all that was my way of sorting through the noise and collecting a record, of sort, should we choose to go back and construct a narrative (which we did do early Friday morning—we were one of the first websites up with a tick-tock of the previous night’s events in part because we never went to sleep)."

I think that's a fair assessment, and for my part I thought a large number (though not all) of Ries' Tweets, along with the performances from other really relentless Tweeters like Businessweek's Jared Keller and Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski, added new information, insight, or context (though rarely all three at once; Twitter's character limit makes me wonder if it will still be the preeminent tool for breaking news reporting five years from now).

And as for the Tweets that weren't so valuable, like ones about showering or commuting, Ries puts it this way: "As for the 'busy' vs. 'not busy' distinction, the majority of the tweets (Sicha) cited in that were from the overnight between late Thursday and early Friday when the majority of newsrooms were fast asleep. So in that case, it was 'busy' vs. 'sleeping.'"

So dear Daily Beast editors: Contrary to what Choire Sicha suggests, your newsroom is not destroyed! Or if it is, Ries didn't do it! And while his Tweets were certainly prolific and even noisy to some, they were at least as close to consistently accurate as the best of his journalistic peers, both on and off Twitter (Like many other journalists, Ries regrets having Tweeted the name of the missing Brown student falsely accused of the bombing). But does that mean every news organization should have a Brian Ries or Jared Keller-esque social media presence?

First off, there's a danger in giving social media producers and editors too much control over their own personal brand. Sure, it can drive traffic to that journalist's employer, just as Anderson Cooper's mug brings eyeballs to CNN. But you can also have a Matthew Keys-Reuters situation on your hands where the journalist thinks he's above the brand. Keys publicly called out a coworker for stealing his Tweets instead of handling the situation privately. Regardless of whether the grievance is legitimate, it doesn't put the brand's best interests in mind to handle out in the open. (And I wouldn't be surprised to see more of these Keys-esque scenarios in the future).

Second, there are many ways to do "social media journalism" in a breaking news environment. Just look at the social media team at the New York Times. Sicha noted how quiet Times social journalists like Daniel Victor had been during the Boston bombing manhunt. Sicha assumed they were busy, but busy doing what?

Yesterday, we at least found out what Daniel Victor had been up to when his name appeared alongside 10 others who worked on a powerful interactive piece showcasing audio interviews with the runners and spectators shown in a photo taken at the finish line just as the first bomb detonated. And how did they track down the individuals? Social media.

So there are many ways for an organization to extract value from its social media reporters. For breaking news-heavy outlets like the Daily Beast, Ries' always-on approach can work well, as long as context is added through the use of words like "UNCONFIRMED" or by making sure news consumers know how many and which sources contributed to a new piece of information. For outlets like the Times which specialize in a slower, more analytical retrospective take on the news of the day, a different approach is needed. The job of a social media journalist at two different organizations can be as dissimilar as the jobs of a sportscaster and a White House correspondent. It can be to vet and verify information that people are already putting out there on Twitter or Instagram or Reddit, or to create opportunities and platforms for people to tell their story who might not normally do so (the social team at ProPublica has done some great work in this regard).

But these social experiments are not without collateral damage. During the Newtown shooting, the brother of Adam Lanza found himself the target of a Facebook witch hunt. And there were of course the two innocent marathon attendees identified as suspicious persons on Reddit then plastered on the cover of the New York Post. How much of this sloppiness are we willing to tolerate in the interest of experimentation? And are these complications an inherent part of social media reporting? Is the speed of Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit diametrically opposed to the care required for good reporting?

Perhaps. But like Buzzfeed's Ben Smith and John Herrman write, the media can't stop people from sharing poorly sourced tips or possibly-doctored photos on social media. And they can't ignore them either, because less scrupulous organizations like the New York Post may spread them no matter what. The only solution is to do what journalists are supposed to do: vet, verify, and contextualize information for news consumers. Maybe we'll get to the point where a journalist Tweeting out an unconfirmed report without properly contextualizing it will be as dire an offense as Stephen Glass making up stories about teenage hackers. But until that time, journalists should follow Dan Gillmor's lead and slow it down.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]