How NBC Is Using Instagram to Report the 2012 Election

A photo taken by using the iPhone Instagram application Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The election is a day away and NBC News is marking the occasion with Electiongrams, a site of political images posted to popular photo-sharing service Instagram. NBC is using geo-tags to display the images on a state-by-state basis, and will post photos uploaded with terms like #obama2012, #romney, or #vote.

The site has just launched and for now contains only a handful of photos, but this screenshot of photos submitted to Electiongrams by Georgia politicos gives you the basic idea.

The significance of Electiongrams for NBC is that it gives the network another news tool for election night. But, on a broader level, the site also represents a new phase in citizen reporting.

It’s true that media outlets have long drawn on the voice of their viewers through Twitter or tools like CNN’s iReport. Electiongrams, however, means that NBC and others can easily tap into photo-based reporting on an unprecedented scale. The flood of photos on the site provides a cheap and near-frictionless way for NBC to add color to its coverage and keep up with real-time events.

According to Ryan Osborn, vice president of digital innovation at NBC News, these new citizen submission tools are not a replacement for people on the ground but a “nice complement” to existing coverage.

Mass-scale photo reporting offers a new form of coverage but also creates new challenges for traditional news outlets: how to find the good stuff in the deluge of photos? And how to screen out the mischief-makers who will try to spam the system with ads, fake news, or worse?

In the case of Electiongrams, NBC is relying on a startup called Chute that provides back-end tools for large-scale photo management to brands and large media companies. Chute helps its clients pull in photos that people share through e-mail or sites like Facebook, but also offers human and automated moderating tools.

According to Chief Executive Officer Ranvir Gujral, the Chute moderation tools are part of an enterprise solution for brands and big media companies that are trying to swim through the massive new stream of user photos flooding the Internet.

A quick look at NBC’s Hurricane Sandy photo-sharing site, Stormgrams, shows the moderation is working—sort of. The state-by-state storm collages are largely free of ads but do contain a fair number of irrelevant pictures.

This doesn’t mean NBC is on the wrong track, though. The company appears to recognize that sites like Twitter and Instagram have come to influence major news events as much as any desk anchor or gumboot-wearing weatherman, and is responding appropriately.

NBC’s Ryan says sites like Electiongrams are part of a larger process in which news companies are using people-based platforms to gather news. “We use them as an early barometer,” he said, “and then the work for journalists begins.”

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