Tamara Keith on social political journalism


Instagram was unveiled as the largest growing social network last year, according to the Pew Research Center.
(Photo: Zenspa1/Flickr under CC license)

It was announced last week that Instagram was the fastest growing social network in 2014. The research from the Pew Research Center indicated that 26 percent of the US adult population was using the Facebook owned social photo and video site, an increase of 9 percent from 2013, while 53 percent of 18-29 year olds use the service.

The same week of that study, as speculation continued as to who would be running in the 2016 presidential election, former Florida governor Jeb Bush launched his PAC, Right to Rise, on Instagram, with Hunter Schwarz of the Washington Post writing that the 2016 election could be the first Instagram election.

The PAC for a campaign for Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is said to be considering a run for the presidency in 2016, is also on Instagram.

As Instagram continues its user growth, and as reporting continues on the lead up to the election across many media outlets, what are the implications for those who cover politics? Can Instagram be a beneficial social resource for the political beat?

Tamara Keith

NPR’s White House correspondent Tamara Keith. (Photo: Kainaz Amaria/NPR)

Recently, Net Worked spoke to Tamara Keith, NPR’s White House correspondent, about this as well as social media and political journalism. Below is that conversation.

NW: From a social standpoint, what role do you think Instagram has now when it comes to politics? What do you think the decision by Jeb Bush to launch his PAC on Instagram said about the network overall?

TK: The Obama White House uses Instagram quite effectively. They just posted a slick State of the Union “spoiler alert” video and on a daily basis post photos of the president related to the policies they are pushing at the time. That might mean a photo of a beautiful lake and mountain and a caption about climate change. But they have multiple official photographers and a videographer. The White House really uses Instagram as an outlet on its own.

Another politician who uses it effectively is Elise Stefanik (R-NY) who just became the youngest woman elected to congress. She instagrams pictures from her meetings with constituents and other stops in her very large district.

I think it is too soon to judge Jeb Bush’s effectiveness. He doesn’t have very many followers and his videos have a home-made feel, one shot in an airport and sort of back lit, the other shot while walking down the street in NYC.

Bush’s team also posted his videos on Facebook, where he has significantly more followers than on Instagram. So, I’m not convinced they really have an independent Instagram strategy. And truth be told, many users don’t have an independent Instagram strategy. It is fun to use and easy. But it also links directly to Facebook so it’s a sort of two for the price of one outlet (for me and a number of my reporter friends).

How do you think the idea of social media has affected how you think about covering politics and the idea of storytelling?

Social media is frequently just another part of my storytelling. I tweet or Instagram or post a vine as I am working on the story. Sometimes I even edit a short video.

Other times I get ideas or suggestions from people on social media, so it is very much a two way street.

And of course now we have to keep an eye on Facebook and Instagram and even LinkedIn because you never know when a politician is going to go around traditional media and take their news directly to their followers. They usually make sure we get the message, though, because they still need the amplification that comes from traditional media.

For politicians, there’s a multi-part advantage to going around us. 1. They reach their supporters directly and make them feel like there is a more personal connection. 2. We all still report it anyway. 3. While social media is still novel, the politicians get extra attention for the ways they use social media. They get extra stories or coverage from more tech-centered publications and blogs focused on their use of non-traditional media channels.

For politicians it is a win win win. For us in the media, it’s just a sign of the times. We’ve adapted.

Do you think Instagram has traditionally been taken for granted by the media? What would you say the perception was of Instagram within those who cover the White House and politics generally?

I think the perception of Instagram is that it is for fun, fun filters, pretty pictures. For me, I also like the freedom of 15 second videos rather than the 6 seconds of Vine. But I am still not totally convinced it has the power or influence of Twitter or Facebook.

For instance, with the Bush announcement videos, most media outlets used the Facebook version of the videos and said he had made the announcement on Facebook.

As a user of Instagram, from a journalism standpoint, when it comes to political coverage, what differences do you notice in Instagram allowing you to tell a story compared to Facebook and Twitter?

Instagram allows longer captions and longer videos, which is nice. But my audience (and I think most people’s) is smaller on Instagram so I almost never post something only on Instagram.

Last year my colleagues and I did a really fun project called #shevotes where we asked people to post pictures on Instagram about their first political memories, who or what got them engaged in the political process. We got a ton of really neat responses. We also did a call out on Twitter but the photos and captions on Instagram were far more meaningful. This became two blog posts on our It’s All Politics blog.

Generally speaking, how relevant do you think social media will be for those covering politics this year and going into the election? How do you see that applying to Instagram?

It’s hard to overstate how relevant social media will be. It will be part of our reporting process every single day, from candidates making announcements to local reporters posting about what they’re seeing in their communities.

But I’m still not sure about Instagram. The smart candidates will find a way to use it effectively because it is yet another avenue to get to people. And there are people who use Instagram far more regularly than Facebook (because there are too many articles you don’t want to see on Facebook). But the big numbers and influence are on Facebook and Twitter. At least that’s my perception of it based on where most of the political news comes from.

Alex Veeneman is a Chicago based SPJ member who is the acting chairman of SPJ Digital and community coordinator for the SPJ. Veeneman is also Deputy Editor, Media Editor and a contributing writer to Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can follow Veeneman on Twitter here.

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