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Communications and Media

The Impacts of Social Media on Modern Journalism

From a bar stool to a classroom chair, the question, “do you have a Facebook?” is only becoming more and more prevalent in modern America, and the world for that matter. In addition to Facebook, other platforms such as Twitter encourage people to share their thoughts like never before, or Instagram, where photographs are widely circulated at the blink of an eye. Americans in particular have been bred for generations into openly sharing thoughts and opinions, as well as printing them, through the freedoms afforded by the Constitution, and more specifically The Bill of Rights.

Although American’s hate the idea of censorship, especially with regards to free speech and press, the issue of social media has muddied the issue, and has made it infinitely more complex. In some ways this complexity has its positive aspects, but the negative aspects are far reaching and cannot be ignored. The instant and virtually universal connectivity of any of the various social media platforms cannot be ignored in modern America, and, in many ways, has proved to be beneficial in many aspects of journalism, however, due to “the shrinkage of newsrooms” (or, “amateurs and professionals sharing the same sphere”) (Ward, 2012), as well as a “growing concern that we are moving further away from…ethical decision making” highlighted by bias reporting (Zara, 2013), as well as a slew of “unavoidable ethical dilemmas” for the digital age (Markula Center, 2013) these social media platforms have jeopardized the integrity of true modern journalism.

For most individuals and businesses it can actually be irresponsible to not take part in the phenomenon that is the outburst of social media. For many small businesses, social media is free advertising on the internet, something that can otherwise prove to be extremely costly. In addition to the free online advertising, businesses are able to further market their niche or product through word of mouth via these platforms. Businesses also use social media platforms to post job openings, and to find prospective employees. Again, the fact that social media is free can seriously cut a business’ advertising and marketing costs, making them very preferable.

For the individual, social media has an entire slew of benefits. Whether it be reconnecting with lost friends, co-workers, lovers, or creating their own pages for social or business purposes, the age range for social media platform virtually does not exist, because it is now everywhere, and used by almost everyone.

The draw for the younger user is of course the instant connectivity social media platforms afford. Curfews are essentially nonexistent in this sense–kids can simply go home and continue to interact with their friends. Now considering the sheer number of devices available that are either able to support versions of social media, or already come social media friendly, the younger user can be simultaneously listening to music, doing homework, and chatting with friends at the same time.

Especially for the later-High School through College age users, social media serves much the same function, however with included bonuses. Many times these users do not have the restrictions socially that younger users have, and this can serve to stimulate social growth, especially with regards to the transmission of information. This can apply in a very trivial manner, for things such as organizing parties, or updating locations on a Saturday night. However, a lot of this information is far from harmless, and can propagate widespread transmission of personal, false, or damaging information.

Again, returning to the rights Americans are afforded in regards to freedom of speech and press, simply because something is true does not mean it is not potentially damaging. For the purposes of this paper a distinction will be made by the self-coined terms “microjournalism” and “macrojournalism”, not on the merit of importance, but by the amount of people reached.

An example of microjournalism, and how potentially damaging the instant transfer of information can be, one must look no further than the campus of Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Upon the discovery of a webcam his roommate was using to spy on him, and the subsequent “outing” of him as a homosexual via social media platforms, Freshman Tyler Clementi ended his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge in September of 2010 (“Tyler’s Story”, 2012).

Of course, although the video had spread to many of Tyler’s classmates and contemporaries, the fact that an 18 year old from Ridgewood would not have made national news if tragedy had not occurred. This is a perfect example of microjournalism, and how, while not directly targeting the wider audience, can cause just as much damage. Nowhere is this more illustrated than in this tragic story. This is also an example of how microjournalism–reports from non-credible, nonprofessional sources, can have a wide impact.

While the story of Tyler spread, the liberal media turned their coverage onto the issue of cyber-bullying. In some ways, this can be seen as a positive, if there is any, which came out of this issue. On the other hand, Tyler’s story, which started with an invasion of his privacy, was exploited in the liberal media, and was proliferated by social media campaigns with Tyler’s picture claiming they want to end cyber-bulling–all the while proliferating the inevitable further prying into Tyler’s personal life.

This idea of social media platforms propelling news stories is exactly what Ward was speaking about in his 2012 article, where he describes the “shrinkage of newsrooms”, or from a different perspective, the connectivity of social media allows amateur journalists (generally considered less able to discern sources as credible or not) to transmit their information at the same speed as professional journalists (Ward, 2012).

Another more contemporary example of the transmission of false information to a wide audience, and in this case faster than the media could, were the initial reports that arose after the Boston Marathon bombings.  In fact, it was rather sad seeing CNN credit images, and even quotations, shortly after the bombing primarily to “Twitter”–compared to ten years ago, where it would always be the Associated Press. This builds off the overall point Ward effectively made–not only is there a muddying of the waters due to an increase in less than credible journalism, but this tragedy clearly illustrates that this is actually being made worse by the credible media itself, calling even their credibility into question (Ward, 2012).

This exactly the type of ethical dilemmas Zara was speaking about in his article from Janurary of 2013, published by The International Business Times. The article highlights statements made by the chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee Kevin Z. Smith regarding the 2012 Presidential election: “The year was highlighted by a national election, and it gave us a diet of biased reporting, political posturing and cheerleading by networks and their staffs, the likes [of which] we have never seen,” (Zara, 2013).

The article also illustrates the belief that throughout all the evidence to the contrary, social media is actually “pushing the industry in a more positive direction”, citing Jeanne Brooks, digital director of the Online News Association. She sees the rise in partisan and biased reporting is not at all a product of the change in facilities of news, but rather as a product of people “holding journalists accountable” for incorrect reporting (Zara, 2013). Though this article is current, being published in Janurary of 2013, it would certainly be interesting to see what Ms. Brooks has to say post-Boston Marathon bombing, where social media was truly tested on a journalistic level never before seen. As America saw in this instance, although social media was helpful in getting in touch with loved ones, it circulated nasty, untrue rumors very quickly, most of which were pure speculation, and were later proven to be false.

Zara’s article illustrates another example of how social media platforms are compromising the integrity of modern journalism–the trust Americans have in the media as a whole, followed by an illustrative example. The article cites a September 2012 poll conducted by Gallup, which “found that 60 percent of Americans have “little or no trust in the media’s ability to report the news fully, accurately and fairly,” (Zara, 2013).

It then cites the December 2012 incident with digital media company BuzzFeed, and professional political cartoonist Matthew Inman. Apparently, BuzzFeed’s lack of editorial oversight allowed an article on Inman, which was completely factually inaccurate, to make publication. The story, which went viral, was cleared up by Inman himself when he took to the internet to personally “debunk” BuzzFeed’s published falsehoods. Inman is quoted as calling this “pageview journalism” (Zara, 2013), known in the writing community as revenue share websites.

These websites such as BuzzFeed have “journalists” write very sparsely edited articles on virtually anything and everything. Preferring articles that are considered to be “newsworthy”, generally referring to time sensitivity, writers are often only paid by the amount of page views their articles receive, as well as advertisements sold by the publisher themselves. Zara states that BuzzFeed’s article was “barely edited, rushed to publication, and stuffed with keywords”, in order to get the most amount of views, ethics aside (Zara, 2013).  BuzzFeed is not the only website that uses this model–in fact, Yahoo itself has a very similar option for freelance writers. When properly edited, this is fine. However, with the amount of news generated simply for revenue out there, the needed oversight is impossible.

This is very interesting when considering Santa Clara University’s article on Digital Journalism, titled “Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas for Digital Journalists”. The site brings up valid points, claiming, as the title suggests, that some ethical dilemmas are in fact inevitable, and simply the nature of contemporary journalism (Unavoidable, 2013). This further solidifies the idea that social media negatively impacts journalism.

One point the site mentions is perhaps the most important point to consider when dealing with social media and journalism–that online errors can live forever. If a factual inaccuracy is posted to the internet, and then is theoretically viewed, and very often “shared” through Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, the permanence of this published material cannot even be judged. Sure an editor or news agency can take down an article, but they cannot remove all of the digital imprints that article made, or can make, in a very short amount of time. This makes any falsehood printed digitally infinitely harder to correct than the traditional sense of print journalism (Unavoidable, 2013).

Another major point the website brings up is the extent to which a news organization is responsible for fact checking in certain situations. In particular, the website brings up community and small presses, and whether, due simply to their lack of training or ideological leanings they can be exempt from the same fact checking standards as a major news company, such as CNN. This argument, meaning that whether they should be held to the same standards or not, is irrelevant with regards to this paper. The point is that whether they are or not, whether they should be or not, and going back to the first “permanency” argument, in many cases once it is published there is not much anyone to delete all traces of it entirely. This then forces one to ask, how is fact checking in the digital age possible? It is no wonder that, as Zara stated, most Americans no longer have faith in the media (Unavoidable, 2013).

A perfectly relevant argument in the digital era of social media platforms also addressed by the article has to do with accountability and transparency of information. This is of course an age old question–when it is proverbially “appropriate”, or if it is, to publish certain pieces of information that could be damaging, sensitive, or already publically available, and just being restated for defamation purposes. To some extent this is an aspect of journalism that has been able to be controlled the most, however instant connectivity and social media has made this issue more complicated (Unavoidable, 2013).

In the past, there was a larger time lapse between when a news agency or journalist caught wind of a story, and when the story was actually released to the public. This time allowed for much more editorial oversight, and prevented potentially damaging stories to be released for any slew of reasons–an example would be to preserve something like a military position, a specific battle, or something that could be twisted before the government can intervene. Social media has done nothing but impede the editorial process, with journalists able to break stories via their smart phones, virtually instantaneously. Therefore, social media has actually quickened the pace at which news can be transmitted, and thus released to the public, but in a negative way. This delay that has been removed was essential in the editorial process (Unavoidable, 2013).

Although there are plenty of undeniable pros to the connectivity social media offers users, it is also undermining the reliability of modern journalism by an overall lack of oversight, as well as editorial review for information sent out onto a permanent stage, forever digitally imprinted–which also serves to be detrimental for fact checking overall. Social media has its place in destroying modern journalism.

Bibliography:

“Center for Journalism Ethics.” Center for Journalism Ethics. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr.    2013. <http://ethics.journalism.wisc.edu/resources/digital-media-ethics/>.

“Paywalls, Profits And Pageview Journalism: Ethics In The Digital Age.” International Business Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.<http://www.ibtimes.com/payw     alls-profits-pageview-journalism-ethics-digital-age-993704>.

“Santa Clara University.” Unavoidable Dilemmas. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.             <http://www.scu.edu/ethics-center/digital-journalism-         ethics/unavoidable_dilemmas.cfm>.

“The Tyler Clementi Foundation.” The Tyler Clementi Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 08   May 2013. <http://www.tylerclementi.org/tylers-story/>.