Studying Chat App Usage by American News Organizations

In the past 12 months, chat apps (e.g. WhatsApp, Snapchat, WeChat, Telegram, Firechat, BBM, and others) have taken on new significance in news production and journalist-audience engagement. For US-based news organizations, chat apps have become newsgathering tools and meeting spaces for domestic and international stories, especially in crisis reporting.

In our research, we are interested in the ways that journalists at major American and other Western news organizations (e.g. the BBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, Storyful, Bloomberg, Reuters, AP, and others) are using chat apps as meeting, news-gathering and distribution tools in coverage of domestic (e.g. the 2015 Baltimore protests) and international stories (e.g. the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong). This usage includes interacting with witnesses and participants in emerging stories and conveying digital narratives (in text, photo, and video formats) to audiences.

The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondent Club by Valerie Belair-Gagnon

The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club (photo by Valerie Belair-Gagnon)

As members of this year’s Tow Fellows cohort, we are studying the phenomenon of chat apps in news production, thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation.

This project focuses on a rapidly growing source of news content and an emerging link between participants in news events and reporters covering those events. Chat apps will play a major role in the years to come, yet there has been little rigorous examination of their use and potential for American news organizations domestically and internationally.

Our work will make several contributions for practitioners and scholars of journalism. First, it provides analysis of journalistic practices of chat apps to cover major recent crisis events at home and abroad. Second, it examines the technological affordances and limitations of different types of apps in newsgathering and dissemination of news. Third, it explores the institutional practices and norms that have emerged with the arrival of chat apps as reporting tools and ways of engaging with the public. Fourth, it offers a set of case studies in the blurred lines that can exist between democratic advocacy and participatory journalism. Fifth, our work will show the ways that sources are making use of chat apps, leading a cycle of innovation that draws journalists onto new and sometimes unfamiliar reporting terrain. With these contributions, we hope to make useful links between research and practice.

To understand how journalists and news organizations are making use of chat apps, we have conducted more than 30 in-depth interviews with journalists who have put chat apps to use in recent crisis events. For domestic newsgathering, we are using the Baltimore protests as a case study. For international newsgathering, we are using the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement as a case study. In each of these cases, journalists made extensive and pioneering use of chat apps to follow events in real-time, develop sources for interviews, and engage with participants and audiences. In our interviews, we explored these types of usage, examining the emerging best practices, norms, rules, and ethics of chat apps as reporting tools.

Journalists reporting the disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers (photo by Valerie Belair-Gagnon)

Journalists reporting the disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers (photo by Valerie Belair-Gagnon)



The questions we ask emphasize how journalists cover fast-moving events on different chat apps, and the spaces that are now features of reporting and news production. We are developing a typology of old and new spaces of reporting (from coffee shops to WeChat) in which journalists perform their roles as observers and chroniclers of major crises.

Having completed the bulk of our interviews, we are currently analyzing protest-related content on the chat apps our interviewees have identified. We will code content in a functional sense, in terms of why journalists choose a particular app in a particular context, and their practices with that app and the data it generates. This mixed methods approach allows us to assess the comparative roles and significance of each app. By studying multiple chat apps, we will understand how journalists used apps in similar and differing ways, and understand the spaces of reporting particular to each chat app.

On March 15, 2016, at the Brown Institute, we will present some findings from our interviews. This will be our first chance to present this data, and we are excited to hear the thoughts from other members of the Tow community.