Executive Completion: Social Media in Journalism A Double-Edged Sword

socialmedia2On Thursday Sept. 25th, 1690 the first newspaper was published in America. Printed and circulated in Boston, the paper was originally intended to continue but was banned quickly being cited as illegal because the editor didn’t gain the necessary approval for the endeavor by the British government. However, in that first and only publication the following promise was made, “wherefore nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information.” The truth. The promise was simple but the first American Journalistic attempt began with the purest and highest of ideals, reporting the truth to the best of the editor and writer’s ability. The additions that technology has offered in the form of modern social media has altered the journalistic landscape, even more so than the printing press itself. Despite the terrain changes that reporters now must travel for a story, the ideals inherent to a piece’s integrity need not waver from that original newspapers pledge. 

For the better and for the worse, social media has drastically altered the landscape of journalism. This article seeks to take a look at a few of the positive and negative consequences that modernity has brought. As well as reminding us that although the manner in which the public gains the news has changed, the end goal remains. Providing the truth to the American public. According to PEW research center, “As of early 2016, just two-in-ten U.S. adults often get news from print newspapers. This has fallen from 27% in 2013.” The research discovered that “Roughly two-thirds (64%) of U.S. adults use the site, and half of those users get news there — amounting to 30% of the general population.”

socialmediaMany critics of social media find this fact terrifying. In his article titled An Alarming Number Of People Rely On Social Media For News, Damon Beres of The Huffington Post notes that social media “shows you what it thinks you’ll be interested in. The social network pays attention to what you interact with, what your friends share and comment on, and overall reactions to a piece of content, lumping all of these factors into an algorithm that serves you items you’re likely to engage with.” He goes on to explain that the problem with receiving news from such sites is that they create echo chambers. Essentially reverberating what each user already believes and likes. Offering a less likely plethora of distinct views that differ from their own. Human beings learn more information when offered all perspectives of the same subject in order to form a coherent opinion based on as many facts and sides as is possible. Echo chambers remove all perspectives. 

socialmedia1To be fair to such sites, it is the human element that helps the algorithm form the echo chamber. People are less likely to hear multiple perspectives unless they allow their likes to go beyond what their comfort levels may inherently be. In his article Facebook Said Its Algorithms Do Help Form Echo Chambers. And the Tech Press Missed It, Zeynep Tufekci of The World Post notes that “Even as technology plays an increasingly important role in our lives, we lack critical, smart and informed coverage — with a few exceptions. We get more critical coverage of Apple’s newest watch then we do on important topics like on how algorithms which help shape our online experience.” 

However, it is also important to note the positive aspects and abilities that modern social media can have. A myriad of experts, including Journalists, now have the ability to gain information on breaking stories faster than ever before. In 2011 during Hurricane Irene the Wall Street Journal used Foursquare’s tip lists feature to provide the locations of New York City evacuation centers. During an apartment shooting The Trentonian, a local newspaper in NJ, used Google Plus, Twitter, Facebook and community bloggers to report the story as it was occurring. With enough followers it actually becomes possible to debunk false information being put out to the public as well. These are examples that show that social media is a tool for uncovering as much information as possible if utilized appropriately.  

socialmedia3Unfortunately, as Anthony Adornato, assistant Professor of Journalism at Ithaca College in New York points out, little or no specifics are in place to ensure that fact checking occurs before a story is published. Stating that, “Its commonplace that news outlets are relying on content that folks have shared, but not every newsroom has a policy regarding how to verify and authenticate this information.” Author Katharine Viner who wrote the article How technology disrupted the truth says it quite eloquently when she sums up the problem, “we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumor, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated; between the open platform of the web as its architects envisioned it and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob.” 

In an Article titled It’s official: Most of us now get our news from social media writer Lance Ulanoff notes that a Pew Studies found that “the very same people who are either accidentally finding news on these platforms or purposefully turning to them each day for news, also pay attention to traditional media. 39% of Facebook users who go to the platform for news still watch the local news. 15% of them actually still read newspapers. Contrast that with the 8% of Twitter’s news users who still consume content from print.” This lessens the blow for print newspapers but as the trend towards streamlining modern forms of publication coverage increases through social media, the desire for uncovering the truth must continue to be adhered to as well.  

As writer Katharine Viner put in the aforementioned article when she notes a common struggle that both the open platform of the web and gated enclosures of social networks share. “What is common to these struggles – and what makes their resolution an urgent matter – is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth. This does not mean that there are no truths. It simply means, as this year has made very clear, that we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows. Increasingly, what counts as a fact is merely a view that someone feels to be true – and technology has made it very easy for these “facts” to circulate with a speed and reach that was unimaginable in the Gutenberg era (or even a decade ago).”

There will always be stories available about pigs who fly and babies born with the ability to perform magic but if a specific set of rules isn’t laid out and adhered to, anarchy will arise and the truth will be lost. First and foremost, Journalists must strive to provide the truth to the public at large. That includes discovering, confirming and informing the public with as much accuracy as is possible. Readers must also do their part. If we, the American citizen, do not seek out the whole truth then we are to blame as well. If we are only willing to be open to views that we are comfortable with then we will not be able to see an accurate and full picture of what is occurring.

Essentially, the standards of both the audience and the reporter need be updated due to the topographical changes brought on by additional social media outlets. The reporter must continue to strive for the same excellence promised by America’s first newspaper. The truth. The reader must insist upon that truth even if they do not like all aspects of it. Social media is not inherently evil; it is the human element that chooses to utilize the tool social media offers for either nefarious or positive purposes. To either uncover new perspectives or echo the same beliefs.

   

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