"Social media are not so much mere tools as they are the ocean we’re going to be swimming in — at least until the next chapter of the digital revolution comes along."
- Geneva Overholser, for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard
Social Media services and websites have experienced phenomenal growth over the last decade – Facebook and Twitter users number in the millions – and the impact of so many people from all walks of life upon the process by which information is shared cannot be overstated. And one area that has likely felt the impact more than any other is the field of journalism.
As one would expect, the initial response by professional journalists to the deluge of information has been one of dismissal, much the same as physicians initially brushed aside any mention of those who practiced alternative medicine. Such dismissive responses have been justified to a great extent, especially given the rapidity with which even the most absurd pronouncements have gained traction and been accepted as being true. It cannot be wholly denied, however, that such a flippant, even disdainful attitude has also been the product of what might appear to be the incursion by undisciplined amateurs into a rarified realm, populated by professionals who had paid their dues and proven their credibility. The threat to journalists as a class was obvious, and threatening.
It is growing increasingly apparent, however, that the influence of social media upon the journalistic community is not likely to diminish anytime soon, as the social media sites continue to grow by leaps and bounds. For that reason alone, it would behoove those who practice the craft of professional journalism to set aside their disdain and endeavor to understand the nature of social media, and to find ways to use it in their own efforts, rather than make the mistake of denying its existence, its reach, and even its viability.
How has Social Media become so pervasive?
It feeds our appetite for instant gratification – For a public long accustomed to instant microwaved meals, instant prosperity, and immediate acquisition of everything that previous generations had been forced to scrimp, save, and toil for, immediate access to news as it is happening has become the norm. We refuse to wait for the evening news broadcasts to discover what has happened, even if the events occur halfway around the world, and have little real bearing upon our lives.
Social media has captured the public’s imagination – We live in a culture where we are increasingly isolated from one another. Social media allows us to peer – from a safe and often anonymous place – into the lives of people we are unlikely to encounter in any other milieu. It provides us with a channel through which we can reconnect with distant and often forgotten acquaintances, where we can somehow recall and even rekindle aspects of our lives that we might have once abandoned, only to feel a sense of regret at their passing.
The democratization of journalism is seductive – It is human nature to want to feel important, and being one of the first to share important information infers upon the sharer a feeling of importance they might not otherwise experience. One need only look to the level of credibility that amateur journalists’ blogs such as the Drudge Report have achieved among the public – deservedly or not – to understand the appeal to those who might desire to be seen as similarly credible themselves.
By striving to better understand the appeal which social media has for so many people, journalists have a very real opportunity to apply that understanding to their own efforts, which can help them to reach an audience that seems at present to be slipping away. The choice for journalists at every level is clear: find ways to swim in that new ocean, or be washed away by it. Let us consider a few ways in which journalists can rise with the tide of social media, and to elevate their craft, rather than see it washed away.
Provides journalists with a broad database of witnesses, material, and perspectives – Where journalists typically rely upon the observations of a select few observers of an event, by staying abreast of public comments on social media sites, they tap a much richer base of knowledge and perspective, and might learn details from one observer that even those directly involved in the event might overlook.
Removes the filters that Journalists and their sources must apply – Official sources of information are often quite reserved and vague in providing information to journalists. Other observers to a given event are less likely to withhold specifics, and may provide event details or insights that official sources might overlook or be hesitant to discuss.
Shifts vetting responsibility to readers – The greatest threat to the credibility of social media reporting is that amateur journalists are not bound by the same code of ethics to which professional journalists must adhere. Whether by unintentionally or willfully spinning the reportage of events, social media contributors are far more likely to post misstatements or twist their reporting of events to more closely adhere to their own editorial opinions. Readers will often pass such observations along without verifying their accuracy or objectivity, thus initiating a misleading snowball effect.
Additional resources also confer additional responsibilities upon journalists.
They must fully vet the information their social media sources provide – We’ve already seen how devastating to a journalist’s career it can be to pass along information without first making certain that it is valid.
Their credibility depends on transparency as well as accuracy – Since some of the information journalists receive will also be accessible on social networks, it becomes increasingly essential that journalists be more transparent in the process of developing their stories. Any discrepancies between the journalist’s account and the social media accounts will immediately generate additional dialog on the network, and misstatements can rapidly become Internet memes that can pose genuine threats to the journalist’s credibility and/or subsequent access to information.
Journalists (and their sources) influence events and often become the news – The trajectory of a professional journalist’s career is guided by his or her personal reputation, and that reputation is built upon both the journalist’s track record and byline. Knowing this, the professional can enhance his or her access to information by demonstration a willingness to properly attribute his or her information sources, but only when the source wants to be identified. Here, the journalist must walk a fine line between giving the source his or her due and shielding the source from unwanted attention and liability.
By effectively utilizing social media, professional journalists can greatly expand the scope and dimension of the stories they report. Along with each additional resource of which journalists avail themselves, there also comes an additional layer of responsibility, to ensure that their reporting is both accurate and unbiased. By accepting that additional responsibility, however, a journalist can turn a potential threat to his or her professional viability into a positive outcome, expanding career possibilities, and rising with the tide of information, rather than being washed away and drowned by it.
Sarah Brooks is with Freepeoplesearch.org. She is a Houston based freelance writer and blogger. Questions and comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.