Consider the hashtag. The pound sign to some. A small grid of four simple lines. This simple symbol sitting atop the “3” on most modern keyboards has the authority to establish memes, corral trends, and organize the otherwise unorganizable.
And if news journalism can harness that authority, the simple hashtag just might have the power to restore credibility to real-time news.
The use of hashtags to organize messages grew organically from an August 23, 2007 tweet from Chris Messina @chrismessina, suggesting the use of the “# (pound) for groups.” The idea, he later elaborated, was to create a “whisper circle” to enable groups of like-minded people to share tweets. From that simple idea, hashtags have become standard practice as an organizing principle for these character-limited posts. Despite their wide adoption, and some efforts to organize and define hashtags (see www.hashtags.org), the use of hashtags remains largely organic.
Still, hashtags are a powerful tool, not just for grouping tweets, but also for labeling them, acting as transparent meta data that describes the content of the tweet itself. Hashtags can describe not only the content of a tweet (e.g., #cityhalllockdown) but also the state of the story (e.g., #breaking or #unconfirmed).
This is important because real-time publishing delivers news as it happens. Real-time reporting allows a story to unfold over time, often with new facts superseding prior reports. News consumers, however, cannot be relied upon to follow each story component in sequence. Common hashtags enable a news organization to publish quickly while revealing to the reader the circumstances and the current state of understanding of each piece of a story, as it is published. For example, #breaking would convey that a story is new and potentially incomplete. #unconfirmed would convey that a potentially important fact has become known, but is not yet confirmed to the news organization’s standard. #correction or #rescinded would convey that a prior report has been found to be incorrect. These hashtags travel with a piece of information as it flows through the social stream and can be used by the reader to understand what was known at the time of a report, and infer that additional inquiry may be needed.
As an organizing principle and context-setting tool, hashtags have the potential to be incredibly valuable to newsrooms as they compete to become the source of record in real-time news reporting. When used consistently by news organizations, standard hashtags will help readers understand more clearly what is happening around them, what is known to be true, and what is pure speculation. This degree of transparency into the news product could positively impact the public trust in news media.
As part of my fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Intitute – a fellowship spent considering the impact of social media on credibility in the news media, I am proposing that the news industry come together to develop a set of standard hashtags and their intended uses. The goal is to build a common library of hashtags, their definitions and their prescribed uses.
The starting point for this lexicon is #CommonTags.org.
Today, #CommonTags is a prototype built on a WordPress blog. #CommonTags are a tool for journalists to identify the status of the news they are reporting, enabling them to get out in front of breaking stories, while giving readers a context to understand what is known or speculated about a breaking news event.
The aspiration is that this blog site grows into a community of concerned and thoughtful journalists, seeking to bring clarity, transparency, and credibility to social media and the practice of real-time continuous news reporting. As a collaborative community, this blog serves as a means for news professionals to propose, debate, and uniformly adopt a set of standard #CommonTags for their stories.
All media professionals are invited to participate in the blog by commenting on proposed #CommonTags, and proposing new #CommonTags of their own by sending the proposed hashtag, definition, and use to RJI. RJI fellows and staff will review and post proposed #CommonTags and open those posts to comment from the broader community.
I encourage you to add your voice to this forum and to adopt #CommonTags that have gained the consensus of the news-reporting community.
And, just for fun, check out this JImmy Fallon – Justin Timberlake SNL skit to see the influence of hashtags on popular culture.