Left to right: Laura Bassett, Huffington Post; Keach Hagey, Politico; Rick Klein, ABC News; Laura Cochran, Gannett; Alex Howard, O'Reilly Media

WASHINGTON — Social media sites have exploded in recent years, dramatically transforming the way politicians operate – and the way the media covers them. And according to several political reporters speaking at a panel Tuesday, Twitter and Facebook not only benefit politicians and reporters, they help the political process itself.

“Anything that involves people makes the process better. Anything that gets people talking makes the process better,” Rick Klein of ABC News said. “That’s what this is about. It’s about engagement.”

Laura Bassett of the Huffington Post agreed that social media tools bring citizens into the process in an innovative and substantial way.

“I think people like to be a part of the conversation and Facebook allows them to do that,” Bassett said. “You can post someone else’s story and it starts a comment feed about how people feel about it. It’s a good way to get people involved.”

Bassett, Klein, Laura Cochran of Gannett, Keach Hagey of Politico and moderator Alex Howard of O’Reilly Media were speaking as part of Social Media Week, a global initiative hosting events in 21 cities worldwide, including six in the United States. According to its website, more than 60,000 people are attending and nearly half a million will connect online. This is the first year events will be held in Washington.

Facebook provides an essential connection from journalists and politics to citizens,  according to Bassett, but Twitter is “almost like a mini-news cycle in itself.” Bassett added that a recent survey found only 2 percent of “non-journalists” get news from Twitter.

Klein said this 2 percent are the “right 2 percent” to push coverage to a broader audience.”

“If you’re following the right group of people, then you’re reaching the right group of people … that’s really what matters,” Klein said. “Even if we’re all talking to each other, collectively we talk to a lot of people.”

Along with reporters, there has been a recent increase in the number of politicians using social media. President Barack Obama hosted a Google+ “hangout” January 30 to connect with his social media followers.  Many politicians also now use Twitter as a method to track what reporters or constituents are saying about them. According to Hagey, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., has no televisions in his office, but instead a screen projecting a Twitter feed.

“They love to retweet stories about them,” Bassett added. “But that’s good for us because that’s 10,000 more people that are interested in reading stories about their congressman and then they read our stories. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.”

Often, politicians take to Twitter not to follow reporters but to bypass them by sending messages directly to their constituents, although panelists estimated that only 10 to 20 percent of politicians run their own accounts.

“When campaigns do it, you have to read their tweets with a big, big grain of salt…” Klein said. “Mitt Romney is not tweeting for himself … they are very careful about what they link to. You’re getting bumper-sticker stuff from them.”

Politicians’ ability to send information to constituents through social media raised the question of whether this direct connection hurts journalists’ relationship with their sources and limits journalists’ access.

“I still think the candidates find enormous value in having a traveling press core that talks to a much bigger audience,” Klein responded. “My sense is that the campaigns aren’t using social media to our exclusion, they’re using it in addition.”

Despite the positive outreach, social media increase the amount of negative attention and response politicians may receive.

“A social media backlash is a very powerful backlash,” Bassett said. “People flocking to your Facebook wall, flocking to your Twitter with angry messages, I don’t think that’s something you can ignore. And they don’t ignore it. They’ll scrub the negative messages from their wall but at least you know they’re reading them and that it bothers them.”

And as Hagey pointed out, an angry letter from a constituent is private. An angry wall post or tweet can be seen by anyone.