Social Media and its effects on Journalism

“Newspapers have a legacy of breaking news and uncovering stories of historic proportion, yet they are losing ground to a generation of consumers embracing digital and mobile alternatives” argues Jack Loechner, marketing and product development specialist.

Journalism is the way of investigation and reporting of events, issues and trends to a broad audience in a timely fashion. According to Kevin Klose – former editor and national and foreign correspondent with The Washington Post – “in its simplest, but perhaps most profound, form, journalism is as old as human existence.” Gaining steam in the 1920s, it goes without saying, however, that the practice in itself has changed tremendously over the years. This could be argued to – in part – due to the ever-increasing presence and use of technology and social media tools the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Digg.com and blogs, to name just a few of the many tools which are at our disposal at every hour of the day.

These changes are primarily due to the fact that the investigation of events, issues and trends can be conducted and reported in a much timelier manner through the use of such outlets. With many – the 18-34-year-old group in particular – actually depending on these outlets of news much more than traditional media, such as newspapers (Loechner 1) as a result.

This is partly due to a lack of patience, and the fact that we have become accustomed to being able to obtain information quickly, therefore seeing no reason as to wait for what can be quickly discovered in a Google search or a 140-character morsel of information.

In evaluating coverage of recent international and national events it is evident how useful social media tools – especially Twitter – can be in delivering news. One event, which highlights this, is the death of Osama Bin Laden – and the fact that a Twitter user was the first to spread the word of his demise.

The first report that the infamous Al Qaeda leader had passed came not from the news media, but from a tweet. At about 4.30pm ET, six hours before it was even announced that President Barack Obama was due to address the nation, Sohaib Athar who lives in Abbottabad, the Pakistani town where Bin Laden was found, tweeted “helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1am (is a rare event.)” He went on to unknowingly tweet about the U.S Special Forces attack: “A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope it’s not the start of something nasty.”

This shift in news sources can be argued to give birth to a democratic movement that forces transparency and honesty in the news that is being reported, in turn giving people a voice to comment on the information that is being delivered to them.

There are an estimated 450 million ‘active’ English language blogs. This equates to around one out of every six people in the world with a personal blog. These blogs empower individuals and give them the opportunity to express their own opinions, and report their own news. Comm suggested that media outlets cannot report information as quickly or as accurately as those who are actually at the scene of the crime. Evidenced in real life examples such as the case of the Palestinian journalist (turn to page … for a profile on him) who reported much of the goings on during the Palestinian and Israeli war which the mainstream media did not have access to. In the past, those who were on the scene didn’t have anywhere to speak up, in today’s world they have a whole arena of eager eyes, and a ‘publish’ button they can press for free.

This affects the practice of journalism in that people have more resources to choose from in terms of where to obtain their information, in turn taking away much of the power of the major news sources, in that they are no longer the be all and end all of information. Vadim Lavrusik, a blogger, described the change as a shift away from one-way communication into a more of a community affair.

This is particularly poignant as it is suggested that the most powerful and persistent drive of Internet usage is the value of connecting with other people and is one of the main reasons why people even use the Internet on a regular basis.

This is exacerbated by the fact that reports have found that overall, respondents have less confidence that news organizations strive to report accurate, politically unbiased news than they had a few decades ago (The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press), with 63% of respondents believing that news stories are often inaccurate. These beliefs make people all the more likely to turn to these new-school methods of obtaining information.

Shel Hotz in his article ‘The Continuing Need For Professional Journalism,’ however argues that bloggers habits of covering only what interests them rather than hard news that needs to be covered could seriously damage investigative journalism.

This is in addition to the fact that blogs and Twitter are also at times responsible for spreading rumours, such as in the case of the Fort Hood shootings in 2009 when Twitter stated that more than one shooter had been involved in the incident. Paul Carr at TechCrunch, a technology-focused blog, wrote,

“For all the sound and fury, citizen journalism once again did nothing but spread misinformation, at a time when thousands of people with family at the base would have been freaking out already, and breach the privacy of those who had been killed or wounded. We learned not a single new fact, nor was a single life saved.”

That said, it is undeniable Twitter continues to play a big role in breaking news. As Morozov summed up: “In the past one needed a fortune, or at least a good name, to cause damage (to an entity). Today, all one needs is an Internet connection.”

Aside from Twitter, Facebook and blogs, one of the ever-growing tools – Digg.com allows users to ‘digg’ an article or website they like and share it with others. Li and Skoler suggest this site is supremely useful as users trust what their peers have suggested as reading material more than what members of the mainstream media, such as editors, might suggest. And when outlets like The Musabi Journal conclude that the three least trusted bodies of work are journalists, government ministers and politicians – this makes sense.

But to suggest that the use of social media is only a negative for the world of journalism would be a mistake. The use of social media tools such as Twitter are pivotal in establishing a connection with an audience, allowing journalists to gather information quickly and easily, asking a large number of users for their opinion. Farhi describes it as a “living, breathing tip sheet for facts, new sources and story ideas,” adding that it can provide instantaneous access to hard-to-reach newsmakers given that there’s no PR person standing between a reporter and whoever they wish to contact. This also helps facilitate the setting up of interviews as well as networking opportunities.

With its speed and brevity, Twitter also allows journalists to quickly post breaking news, as well as a running commentary on stories. Interacting with the community through Twitter – the benefits of which were discussed above – also requires a limited amount of time. Farhi said: “Twitter enables reporters to reach people where they are. People are busy, but they’re out there consuming and exchanging information on these networks.”

For those concerned that the use of technology and social networks marks the end of professional journalism, they need not worry. As Mark Briggs, author of Journalism 2.0 wrote: “just like the telephone didn’t replace the face-to-face meeting over coffee, and email didn’t replace the telephone, social media doesn’t replace other forms of connecting with people. It adds to them.

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4 thoughts on “Social Media and its effects on Journalism

  1. I do think the instant action we get from social media affects traditional journalism because it can spread news so much faster. Print newspaper and even TV that only reports at certain hours can’t keep up with a Twitter feed.

  2. Really interesting article, thanks. 🙂

    Just to add my two pennies, I agree – I think that as we live in a world of movement and where things are either instantaneous or are lost in time & therefore, print will never keep up with the speed of actual news happening and as technology continues to evolve, so will the speed in which we desire it.

    I wrote a similar post touching on this here: http://bit.ly/Ic7et4 – which talks about how certain jobs may become unnecessary over time because of the technology we know & love taking over.

    All in all, I guess it’s a matter of taste; some people will always choose talking on the phone over sending an email, etc. I guess the issues arise when people start removing old technology & making it unavailable – anyone buy a cassette tape lately…?

    • Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Totally agree – many jobs and/or technologies will become more and more superfluos and I don’t think that’s something we can do anything about. Sure some people will always choose talking on the phone over sending an email but what worries me is whether our children will even have that option.

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