Twitter. Facebook. Digg. MySpace. LinkedIn.
The list of social media tools could probably run on for paragraphs, and today’s technology changes so rapidly that many industries, including corporations and news media, can barely keep up. In the traditional world, newspapers, corporations, governments, or other types of leading organizations simply had to give out information, and people would consume it by reading or looking at it. But this seemingly tried-and-true method is transforming.
Simply making information available is not enough for today’s public. Today’s audiences expect to be able to choose what they read, and most believe they should be able to contribute content and opinions, too. This shift, sometimes called the social media revolution, is not the death of journalism as America always knew it; it’s the birth of a democratic movement that emphasizes some of journalism’s key factors: transparency, honesty, and giving a voice to the person who doesn’t have one.
Many traditional and non-traditional media outlets report and comment on how the Internet and social media, especially social networking, have begun to seriously affect news organizations and how they operate. Although newspapers currently face a crisis on how to make the news profitable in the digital age, that isn’t this report’s main focus. How papers will make money has been talked to death. So, instead, this report will focus on how social media, especially social networking sites like Twitter, has begun to affect the news organizations and changed — for better or worse — how journalists perform their jobs every day.
The main purpose of this report is to learn how the social media revolution has changed and will continue to change journalism and news organizations. To understand social media and its effects, one must read and analyze information gathered through journal articles, interviews and observations as this report has done. The report is broken into subtopics: a summary of the current state of traditional media; definitions and background information on what social media and social journalism are; social media tools professionals use and why; current event case studies in which social media played a role in reporting the news; ethical issues surrounding the social media shift; and how the future of the news media might look as a result of social media.
The report will respond to one simple, yet rather complex, question: What impact has social media had on news organizations? A question like this cannot be answered straightforward but must instead be explored. While the report will focus on what has already occurred, it will also look to the future and will consider whether public opinions of the mainstream media have helped spawn and accelerate the birth of the social media revolution. Results will lead the report to offer three areas within journalism that social media has significantly touched: the public’s trust of the news media in relation to social media; the relationship between local news organizations and social media; and how news is and will be covered using social media tools.
Social Media Literature Review
Media industry publications and critics often mention a media shift from traditional outlets, like newspapers and magazines, to digital news sources. Going a step beyond simply being online, media organizations have begun to consider how news organizations use social media tools to keep their audiences and, most importantly, to keep bringing in funds to support themselves. Myriad opinions and ideas on the topic exist on social media’s presence in the journalism world; the volume of information can seem overwhelming.
However, this report will attempt to explain what has occurred and hypothesize on what the future holds for a world containing independent journalism and social media tools. The research gathered for this report can be grouped into four categories: the current state of traditional and social media; popular social media tools and how media use them; ethical issues surrounding journalists’ use of social media tools; and how a two-way, conversationally driven world will change journalism.
Understanding where traditional news organizations currently stand requires one to understand how audiences consume their news and what they think about the news business as it stands. Surveys by news organizations and foundations offer a way to understand the public’s thoughts quantitatively. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a survey in which it found, overall, respondents have less confidence that news organizations strive to report accurate, politically unbiased news than they had a few decades ago. In fact, the public’s confidence has reached its lowest level in more than two decades (“Public” 2).
Despite this, the Pew survey showed most respondents still think watchdog journalism is critically important (“Public” 10-11). The poll also monitored consumers’ most-used news medium, finding audiences tend to obtain national and international news from TV and the Internet (“Public” 4). However, this and a survey study conducted by the National News Association (NNA) found the opposite seems to be true for local newspapers, especially weeklies (“Annual”). The NNA’s survey found the majority of respondents spend at least 40 minutes a week reading their local newspaper and often prefer the print over the online edition (“Annual”).
A MediaPost article discussed a survey that found males tend to be more open to new media than females, and, to little surprise, the 18-to-34-year-old age group has seen the largest decline in traditional media usage (Loechner 1). This survey also found while most people said newspapers needed to change to remain relevant, users wouldn’t be willing to pay to read print magazines online (Loechner 1-2).
Before being able to define the relationship between social media and journalism, it’s vital to explain journalism’s purpose and troubles within the media industry as a whole. In a letter in the American Journalism Review, Kevin Klose wrote journalism in its purest form is about witnessing an event and recording them for others to see and read (Klose 2). Similarly, in another American Journalism Review article, Pamela J. Podger says journalism is about listening to those who have something to say (Podger 36). In his blog post titled “Social Journalism: Past, Present and Future,” Woody Lewis offers similar sentiments regarding what a “social journalist” is. He explains social media is about listening as well as interacting with others (Lewis).
Another blogger, Vadim Lavrusik, described the change from one-way communication to a community affair and how the change will assist journalists. Others, including two authors for the fall 2009 online issue of Nieman Reports, Robert G. Picard and Richard Gordon, and Chris Martin of Chris Martin Public Relations, also expressed social media can help journalists do their jobs more effectively. Journalists aren’t the only ones who benefit from news organizations’ increased presence on social media.
Others have evaluated the news media and determined social media has not only benefited journalists but has also helped give individuals a way to speak up to the world. In a book titled “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies,” Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff argue social media has empowered individuals and has forced the idea of “news media” to morph whether or not the industry has desired this change (Li 5). In his book “Twitter Power,” Joel Comm argues a similar case, stating social media allows anyone to publish ideas at a relatively non-existent price (Comm 1).
Despite its positives, some have found problems with journalists in the social media world. In articles written for the fall 2009 edition of Nieman Reports, Michael Skoler discusses the media’s flawed business model and how social media could help, while Geneva Overholser argues journalists need to talk more about social media (Skoler; Overholser). Finally, in his article, “The Continuing Need for Professional Journalism,” Shel Holtz argues how bloggers’ habit of covering what interests them rather than hard news that needs to be covered could seriously damage investigative journalism (Holtz).
Without tools and applications like Twitter, social media simply wouldn’t exist. Many media professionals have reported on how journalists can use these tools. In an article for Wired magazine, Steven Levy discusses how user-oriented, real-time Twitter is changing the news media (Levy). In an article for the American Journalism Review titled “The Twitter Explosion,” Paul Farhi discusses these aspects, relating them to those in journalism and media careers (Farhi).
Two writers, Courtney Lowery and Leah Betancourt, discuss how to use (and how not to use) social media tools like Twitter for journalistic purposes (Lowery; Betancourt). Lowery goes a bit deeper than Betancourt by describing her own newspaper’s experiences with social media tools in her Nieman Reports article (Lowery). In her article for the American Journalism Review, Podger explores the importance of social media in journalism but doesn’t force employees to use the tools. However, a large number of Americans use them anyway, perhaps even more than e-mail, according to a Mashable blog entry written by Adam Ostrow (Ostrow).
Facebook and Twitter are becoming more important than ever, and part of the tools’ popularity stems from the ability to easily create one’s own applications, as Gordon’s class did. The class made a tool called NewsMixer for Facebook (Gordon). Also, Christine Greenhow and Jeff Reifman conducted a study on Facebook community involvement by creating and observing different Facebook applications (Greenhow). Finally, while these tools are popular and important, they aren’t alone. Tools like Digg.com allow users to “digg” an article or Web site they like and share it with others (Li 3). Both Li and Skoler suggest Digg.com is so useful because users trust what other users suggest for reading material as opposed to what members of the mainstream media, such as editors, might suggest (Li; Skoler).
The third literature topic required a wide use of newspaper articles because it evaluates coverage of recent international and national events. Four major events show how useful social media tools, especially Twitter, can be. The most recent event is the Nov. 5, 2009, shootings in Fort Hood, Texas. This report examines the situation using a weekly news report from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and an article from the Columbia Journalism Review’s Web site. Both of these articles discuss how social media tools — especially Twitter — allowed journalists and the public alike to report occurrences quicker than in the past, although possibly with some errors (“Pew Research”). Megan Garber’s article at cjr.org titled “Fort Hood: A First Test for Twitter Lists” examines Twitter’s new list feature and how journalists used it to report on the Fort Hood shootings (Garber).
The Iranian protests during summer 2009 offer the second example. In their article for The New York Times, Brad Stone and Noam Cohen discuss what occurred on and off Twitter during the protests. Also, Brian Stelter wrote two articles on the social media coverage of Iran for The New York Times, one discussing CNN’s coverage and another discussing the protest and citizen journalism in general (Stelter; “Real-Time”). Although, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the protests were one of the hottest topics of its week, some voiced concerns with the mainstream media’s vast amount of coverage on the so-called “Twitter Revolution.” In his article titled “Iran: Downside to the ‘Twitter Revolution,'” Evgeny Morozov discusses two problems with calling it a Twitter Revolution.
First, he writes there may not have been as many eye witnesses tweeting as expected for numerous reasons. Secondly, he says those Iranians who did use Twitter or blogs took a risk in being associated with Americans and considered spies (Morozov 10-14). In an InformationToday article, Michael Baumann also mentions the dangers Iranians who use social media would face; he quotes Morozov a couple times in his story (Baumann 1, 52, 54). While one of the most popular examples, the Iranian protests is just one example among many of journalists using social media.
The third and fourth case studies involve an explosion in Bozeman, Mont., in 2009 and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in 2008. Nationally, in “An Explosion Prompts Rethinking of Twitter and Facebook”, Lowery discusses her experiences using Twitter and Facebook when covering an explosion in Montana (Lowery). A CNN article by Stephanie Busari discusses how Twitter and other social media tools were used to spread information after the 2008 bombing in Mumbai (Busari).
One cannot talk about technology, especially social media tools, without evaluating ethical implications. For this topic, two articles served as the main sources: “Creating Ethical Bridges from Journalism to Digital News” by Jan Leach and “The Limits of Control” by Podger. Leach’s article considers how journalists and audiences will create and define news organizations ethics in the social media realm, while Podger’s article focuses more specifically on how traditional newspapers and organizations will create ethics guidelines for employees and Web site participants.
Finally, the last topic to examine is how professionals think social media will affect journalism’s future. Many articles, including those by Podger, Picard, Klose, Gordon, Greenhow, Holtz and Lavrusik, discuss this topic. The articles describe beliefs that news organizations will move toward increasingly using mobile devices. They also suggest reporters will become more independent instead of being linked to a specific news organization for a long period of time (Podger 36; Lewis 2).
A handful of authors also discuss how the classrooms that shape future journalists will evolve with social media. In fact, one school, DePaul University in Chicago, has already created a course called “Digital Editing: From Breaking News to Tweets” that focuses on confirming sources and information from citizen journalists (“DePaul”). Surveying these data and documents will help one to gain an understanding of the direction in which journalism faces — toward increased usage of social media in daily routines.
Social Media Research Methods
The method for gathering this data is just as scattered and diverse as the opinions on the subject. As evident in the literature review, this report must have a plethora of types of media, including industry journals (online and print), industry books, news organizations, blogs and journalism institutions’ reports, articles and press releases.
First and foremost, the researcher gathered preliminary information using two main strategies: staying up-to-date on current events and industry news and following conversations and communications professionals on Twitter. In this report’s case, the researcher watched CNN most weekday mornings and checked in with Twitter a few times a day. The researcher received and scanned multiple daily e-mails, including social media-related newsletters, from MediaPost and AdvertisingAge.
Also, the researcher engaged in a few Monday “#journchats” on Twitter to see into professional journalists’ minds, hear — or, rather, see — what they talk about in relation to the industry and perhaps even engage in conversation with said professionals. In fact, the researcher located public relations professional Chris Martin, by pitching a request for comment on the project’s topic via Twitter and the #journchat. The tweet read: “I’m researching journalism & social media for a school project — anyone willing to chat with me for a few minutes some time? #journchat 7:11 PM Oct 12th from TweetDeck.”
In addition to keeping up with the news and Twitter, the researcher also found numerous articles and related excerpts in communications-related books, journals, magazines, Web sites and blogs. Most articles and data were found using search engines and databases provided through the Friedsam Memorial Library. Finally, it was also important to locate surveys trusted research organizations like the Pew Research Center had conducted on journalism and news organizations. Combining information from articles and secondary surveys gave the researcher quantitative and qualitative data that was used to discuss the report’s purpose, which is to identify how social media has impacted journalism and news organizations.
Before jumping into social media, it is important to understand the current circumstances surrounding traditional news media outlets. According to Jack Loechner, “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” (Loechner 2). Despite this, according to a Pew Research Center survey on public perceptions of the news media, TV remains the dominant news source, with 71 percent of respondents saying they favor TV and 33 percent citing newspapers as their preference (“Public”).
While TV may dominate right now, the biggest declines in traditional media usage are with the 18-to-24-year-old market. Loechner found young adults of this age group rank the Internet as more important than TV (Loechner 1). With the younger generation’s lack of patience comes its desire for speedy news and information, and the Internet can give just that. However, this desire troubles Geneva Overholser.
“It strikes me that most people don’t care as much about who publishes news (or what are often rumors) first these days as they do about whether the sites they rely on have it right when they want it. Now, as we all know, news and information need to be on the platform we’re checking, wherever we are” (Overholser 1).
In the Pew perception survey, most respondents, although more critical of media than in the past, still see traditional news outlets as important to watchdog journalism (“Public” 10-11). However, the public’s assessment of news organizations’ accuracy and media bias are at the lowest in decades (“Public” 2). According to the Pew public perception survey, 29 percent of respondents said the media generally report the facts correctly, while 63 percent said news stories are often inaccurate.
In contrast, in 1985, 55 percent of the survey respondents said the media are accurate most of the time, and 35 percent said media are often inaccurate (“Public” 2). The public isn’t finding news organizations to be unbiased, either. According to the survey, about 26 percent of respondents said news organizations are careful to remain unbiased, while about 60 percent said news organizations are politically biased (“Public” 2). Only about 20 percent said organizations were “independent of powerful people or are willing to admit their mistakes”, which matches all-time lows (“Public” 2).
Local news organizations may be a different story, though. According to a National Newspapers Association (NNA) press release, “(Stories about newspapers failing) tend to be based on readership and advertising numbers for the major daily newspapers in America, usually the top 100, sometimes the top 250. Yes, absolutely those are big papers, important papers. But they are not the whole story” (“Annual”). Also, an NNA survey found 81 percent of respondents read a local paper each week, and 73 percent read most or all of it (Strupp). Interestingly, this survey also found 53 percent of respondents never read local news online while 12 percent said they often read local news online (Strupp).
The Pew perception survey summed this up by saying online news lags behind newspapers, which remain the most popular media outlet, according to the perceptions survey (“Public” 4). Michael Skoler argued as news conglomerates took over local news organizations and made changes people began losing trust in the media. Skoler wrote, “Surveys show a steep drop in public trust in journalism occurring during the past 25 years” (Skoler). In addition, Robert G. Picard found social media tools to be more useful for national and international news organizations than those on the local level. He wrote, “(Social media tools) offer the competitive advantages of making the brand omnipresent in the face of the myriad of competing alternative sources of news and information” (Picard).
Before defining social journalism, a combination of social media and journalism, one must understand what journalism itself is: A person witnessing and recording an event (Klose 2). According to Kevin Klose, “In its simplest, but perhaps most profound, form, journalism is as old as human existence” (Klose 2). Monica Guzman, a news gatherer at seattlepi.com, said, “Journalism is about listening, so if you’re not listening to people who are talking, then you’re not doing your job” (Podger 36). But what’s social journalism?
According to Woody Lewis, a social journalist can be defined as a person with a premeditated watchdog role who uses social media to communicate and collaborate with readers. Crowd dynamics shape the social journalist’s stories more than editors do (Lewis 1). Vadim Lavrusik offers a similar definition by saying the goal of social journalism is to build a community through engagement. He wrote, “In a way, social networks are the new editorial page, rich with opinions and ideas” (Lavrusik 3). Gordon also related to the collaboration concept by saying the media’s current biggest mistake is considering news to be a one-way, rather than a two-way, communication form (Gordon). Gordon pointed out that digital communities aren’t brand new; his newspaper began creating discussion boards in the late 1990s.
“We didn’t think that cultivating community or moderating discussions were appropriate or necessary roles for a journalist. And we ignored evidence right in front of us — our own behavior as online users — that the most powerful and persistent drive of Internet usage was that value of connecting with other people” (Gordon).
Joel Comm would probably agree with Gordon. He wrote those who use social media correctly don’t create content but generate conversations, which creates communities (Comm 3). These conversations have become the status quo online and the main reason many people even use the Internet on a regular basis. Also, many people do not want to simply be fed information; they also want to find and share it with others as well as connect directly with sources and writers instead of going through a reporter or news organization (Skoler).
“(People) expect to be listened to when they have knowledge and raise questions. They want news that connects with their lives and interests. They want control over their information. And they want connection — they give their trust to those they engage with — people who talk with them, listen and maintain a relationship” (Skoler).
Picard wrote journalists can benefit from creating relationships with their audiences (Picard). Lavrusik also touched on this idea in his article quoting Jeff Jarvis, professor and director of interactive media at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. Jarvis said, “We used to always have the audience come to us, but that’s not the case anymore” (Lavrusik 2). Jarvis’s statement shows the importance of the shift from media organizations being in charge to people being in charge, or, if not in charge, at least having a say. Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, authors of “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies,” wrote, “Lawyers and entrepreneurs aren’t the most powerful force on the Internet. People are.
And people, empowered by technology, won’t always go along. Media isn’t neatly boxed into little rectangles called newspapers, magazines and TV sets anymore” (Li 5). Comm wrote similar sentiments, saying major media outlets can’t report information as quickly or as accurately as those who are actually at the scene of the event (Comm xiv). In the past, though, those who were on the scene before news organizations didn’t have anywhere to speak up besides through journalists. Now, journalism has faced a dilemma because, in today’s world, people can get online and publish their stories without ever even thinking about a journalist. “It can cost literally nothing to create content and make it available for other people to enjoy,” Comm wrote (Comm 1).
Giving consumers the ability to publish information more efficiently isn’t good news for everyone, though; multiple problems emerge from the change. First, many blog posts are still opinion-oriented rather than first-coverage news oriented, meaning most blogs don’t offer journalistically reported news content (Holtz 2). Second, the emergence of bloggers means news media organizations now face much more competition (Picard). Thirdly, true investigative journalism, like that done to uncover the Watergate scandal, faces a threat that could render it impossible because bloggers may not want to perform the meticulous work investigative journalism involves.
Bloggers will probably want to focus on what interests them rather than on what’s important for the public. Also, even if they want to do the work, bloggers may not be able to financially (Holtz 2). However, whether or not critics embrace or discourage social media’s arrival, it is here and cannot be turned away. But the news media industry can use social media to its advantage if it thinks quickly. According to Skoler, “Social media are the route back to a connection with the audience. And if we use them to listen, we’ll learn how we can add value in the new culture. The new journalism must be a journalism of partnership. Only with trust and connection will a new business model emerge” (Skoler).
To understand how social media has affected journalism, one should understand the most popular social media tools for journalists, the most popular of the day being Twitter and Facebook. To start, one could consider a story from Chris Martin, a public relations professional for more than 20 years. He said social media has helped him build and maintain relationships with reporters (Martin). His example involved a health reporter in Chicago with whom he was friends on Facebook.
The reporter began updating her Facebook status with stories she was working on, and one of the stories related to a topic Martin wanted to pitch to the media. So, Martin put her in contact with a few of his clients, allowing both reporter and PR professional to win in the situation (Martin). Other communications professionals have also learned as they move around in the social media world. Courtney Lowery wrote about how her organization made “rookie mistakes” when it embarked on the Facebook and Twitter journey, but the organization was able to correct its mistakes to create a more effective presence (Lowery).
While media organizations and journalists may seem to mention Twitter more than other social media tools, it may not be the most popular with the general public. According to Adam Ostrow, Facebook dominates the social media landscape as the most popular way to share information online. E-mail comes in second followed by Twitter and, in last place, MySpace (Ostrow). However, this report will discuss MySpace, Digg, Facebook and Twitter, with the focus heavily on Twitter.
MySpace sprang to popularity in 2006, becoming the most popular Web site in the world in terms of page views (Briggs 28). News Corporation purchased the site in 2005 for $580 million (Briggs 28). MySpace as a journalistic tool can become a resource for contacting sources and communicating with audiences, according to Leah Betancourt (Betancourt 3). In addition to MySpace, social bookmarking sites are also impacting journalism. At Digg.com, users vote and comment on news stories, and stories receiving the most votes are featured on the site’s homepage as the most popular stories (Li 3).
The community atmosphere has made Digg and other social bookmarking sites rather popular among the public. According to Skoler, “These social bookmarking sites help people find relevant news based on who is recommending stories. Anyone can play, even if experienced and dedicated users have an advantage” (Skoler). In addition to stories like Martin’s above, Facebook tools like the Facebook Connect Service can help media organizations because the application allows Facebook users to log on to other sites using their Facebook IDs instead of creating another site-specific account (Gordon).
While the aforementioned tools shouldn’t be forgotten, according to contemporary research, Twitter appears to be one of the most discussed by communications professionals at this time. The free social-networking service allows short messages to be sent to and received by self-designated followers either using a computer and Internet connection or a mobile device with an Internet connection (Farhi 28). Also, unlike Facebook, Twitter’s primary users are adults aged 35 to 49 who say they use the tool at work (Farhi 30). In addition, Paul Farhi wrote, “Twitter attracts the sort of people that media people should love — those who are interested in, and engaged with, the news” (Farhi 30).
Twitter’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent months, attracting 17 million visitors in April 2009, an 83 percent increase from the previous month (Farhi 28). More specifically, Twitter has become a tool for media members. For example, David Gregory of “Meet the Press” had more than 520,000 followers, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC has more than 500,000 followers, and The New York Times’ David Pogue has more than 300,000 followers (Farhi 27-28). Farhi wrote, “Some well-known news media names now have Twitter followers that are almost as large as the circulation of their newspapers or viewerships of their TV shows” (Farhi 27).
The public and journalists alike have found many uses for Twitter. Appealing features for journalists include its speed and brevity, which allow journalists to quickly post breaking news as well as swift-changing updates on stories (Farhi 28). The simplicity and asymmetry between writers and followers are also crucial aspects of Twitter for journalists (Levy 3). In addition, Twitter requires little care and interacting with the community via Twitter takes a limited amount of time (Farhi 28-9). Lowery discussed how her organization began using Twitter to push out stories as well as perform journalistic news gathering tasks.
“We used Twitter to do live coverage of stories of our choice. There’s an emphasis here on ‘choice’. Live-tweeting school board meetings might not quite work. Live-tweeting a high-profile court case, on the other hand, might. It’s all about listening to readers and applying news judgment in deciding which stories lend themselves to which medium” (Lowery).
While useful for disseminating information, journalists can also use it to gather information. Farhi described Twitter as a “living, breathing tip sheet for facts, new sources and story ideas.” He added, “It can provide instantaneous access to hard-to-reach newsmakers, given that there’s no PR person standing between a reporter and a tweet to a government official or corporate executive. It can also be a blunt instrument for crowdsourcing” (Farhi 28).
Some journalists see Twitter’s usefulness in relation to story generation (Farhi 29). According to Dan Gillmor, veteran news media blogger and Arizona State University journalism professor, “Journalists should view Twitter as a ‘collective intelligence system’ that provides early warnings about trends, people and news” (Farhi 29). Comm offered similar sentiments by writing, “Tweets are the means to an end. Twitter is just a communication tool” (Comm xviii-xix).
The new tool isn’t perfect, though. Farhi suggested problems relating to the sheer volume of information. Journalists may have to sift through a lot to get to a story idea that’s worth a journalist’s time. Also, the 140-character limit means links to Web sites and articles must be short, and viewers might not know what they are clicking on before they click. However, to avoid these problems, some suggest paring down lists to keep only the most consistent users (Farhi 3o). Another large issue surrounding Twitter is how one can make money from using it (Levy 5).
Ethically, Steven Levy also voiced concerns about blending the line between confidant and audience. He wrote, “Allowing unrestricted following eventually meant that P. Diddy could share the progress of a tantric sex session with a hundred thousand followers, and the Kennedy family could use Twitter to keep the public informed about developments in Uncle Teddy’s funeral” (Levy 3-4). Just like in TV and print, audiences can use social media tools like Twitter for entertainment or for news. In the end, there is also the concern that Twitter doesn’t have much staying power and is simply a trend with “devoted followers that has never lived up to its gargantuan hype” (Farhi 31). However, only time can prove or disprove this.
Despite these potential setbacks, inside Twitter documents show the start-up company expects to continue gaining tweeters, hoping to become the first Internet service to sign one billion users by 2013 (Levy 2). Whether or not Twitter will stick for a long time, in the here-and-now, the tool has helped facilitate conversation and build relationships among journalists, sources and the public, according to Lowery and Martin. “Twitter enables reporters to reach people where they are. People are busy, but they’re out there consuming and exchanging information on these networks. This is a way of bridging the gap with them and being more engaged” (Farhi 29).
However, just because Twitter’s and social media’s futures might look bright doesn’t mean other media forms are done for. Mark Briggs, author of Journalism 2.0, wrote, “Just like the telephone didn’t replace the face-to-face meeting over coffee, and e-mail didn’t replace the telephone, social media doesn’t replace other forms of connecting with people. It adds to them” (Betancourt 3).
To fully understand how social media has impacted journalism, one must also consider a few recent events. Social journalism itself has been in existence long before social media came into the picture. One example of early social journalism is when police beat Rodney King in the 1992. One man present when the police beat King kept his camera rolling and submitted it to the mainstream media to spread the story (Lewis 1). The Internet also played a role in the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine (Baumann 1). This report will focus on four current events that used social media: the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, an explosion in Montana in 2009, the Iranian protests in summer 2009 and the Fort Hood shootings in November 2009.
Many believe information about the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 broke first on Twitter. In an article on CNN.com, Neha Viswanathan, a former regional editor for Southeast Asia and a volunteer at Global Voices, said, “Even before I actually heard of (the attack) on the news, I saw stuff about this on Twitter. People were sending in messages about what they were hearing. There were at least five or six blogs from people who were trapped or who were very close to what happened” (Busari 1). In discussing the Iran protests in 2009, Matthew Weaver of The Guardian told nytimes.com, during rallies and conflicts, tweets arrive first, then pictures, then YouTube videos, then the wires (Stelter 1). Weaver also said what people report “at one point in the day is then confirmed by more conventional sources four or five hours later” (Stelter 1).
According to the cnn.com article on the Mumbai attacks, eyewitnesses sent an estimated 80 messages every five seconds, providing updates and some even asking for blood donors to go to specific hospitals (Busari 1). The cnn.com article also reads, “However, as is the case with such widespread dissemination of information, a vast number of the posts amounted to unsubstantiated rumors and wild inaccuracies” (Busari 1). Blogger Tim Mallon also felt the Twitter coverage wasn’t great. He wrote, “Far from being a crowd-sourced version of the news, it was actually an incoherent, rumor-fueled mob operating in a mad echo chamber of tweets, retweets and re-retweets” (Busari 2). Twitter wasn’t the only tool involved, though. Witnesses posted “haunting images” of the aftermath of the attacks on Flickr, a photo-sharing Web site, for the world to see (Busari 1).
Twitter also showed its importance when an explosion in Bozeman, Mont., destroyed three businesses in the spring of 2009. Lowery, editor of NewWest.net, wrote, “Here in Montana, this explosion was our ‘aha’ moment in experiencing how social media, Twitter in particular, opens up new possibilities in journalism” (Lowery). She continued by saying both her news organization and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle quoted from the Twitter feed. However, she pointed out an important step they took. “We filtered the information and confirmed facts,” she wrote (Lowery).
Also, one Bozeman-based journalist, Michael Becker, created a hashtag on Twitter to organize tweets about the explosion (Lowery). A hashtag is Twitter slang for a group of tweets on a specific topic, like #swineflu or #journchat (Farhi 29). On his blog, Becker wrote, “For a long time, people have been talking about the potential of Twitter as a news source. Today, Twitter earned its stripes” (Lowery). Becker continued by saying social media tools like Twitter will probably never replace the traditional media any time soon, but it “did a job that traditional journalism could not possibly do in a city of this size. It informed the people as quickly as events happened and let people know what they needed to know right away” (Lowery).
Finally, Lowery also mentions the explosion helped her see a sort of “symbiotic relationship” between social and traditional media. Those on location can post quickly and traditional journalists can use these accounts, with some basic fact checking, to push vital information to the public in a more efficient manner (Lowery).
The protests in Iran during the summer of 2009 also caught a lot of social media attention. The string of protests in itself was a fairly popular topic. Interestingly, two in 10 said they followed the Iran story more closely than any other story that week. However, seven in 10 said they had heard about the media ban, and six in 10 said they had heard about Iranians posting amateur videos on sites like YouTube (The Pew 1). In fact, news organizations tended to cover just as much about what was happening in Iran as what was happening in the social media world because of Iran. Evegeny Morozov wrote,
“In the first days after the protests, it was hard to find a television network or a newspaper (never mind the blogs) that didn’t run a feature or an editorial extolling the role of Twitter in fomenting and publicizing the Iranian protests. The modish take of the usually sober Christian Science Monitor is representative of the heavily skewed coverage: ‘The government’s tight control of the Internet has spawned a generation adept at circumventing cyber roadblocks, making the country ripe for a technology-driven protest movement’” (Morozov 10).
Media criticisms surrounding the Iranian protests often focused on CNN, which obtains footage from citizens via its iReport service (Stelter 2). People can submit videos and the organization attempts to verify its truthfulness by contacting the poster (Stelter 2). When the Iranian government barred western journalists from reporting on the streets and cameras were confiscated, people began using devices like camera phones to submit videos and photos of the protests online (“Real-Time” 1).
Such images include the video of Neda, who became a protest symbol, bleeding to death (Stelter 1). CNN wasn’t the only organization using citizen reports, though. The New York Times, The Huffington Post and The Guardian published “minute-by-minute blogs with a mix of unverified videos, anonymous Twitter messages and traditional accounts from Tehran” (Stelter 1). However, these blogs were a unique form of journalism, according to Brain Stelter of The New York Times. They tended to be “a collaborative news style of news gathering — one that combines the contributions of ordinary citizens with the reports and analysis of journalists” (Stelter 1).
However, blogs weren’t the only method used. Morozov pointed out foreign blogs require a lot of work, while Twitter is in real-time and easier to manage and maintain (Morozov 12). Some have disputed those who called the Iranian protests a Twitter Revolution, citing many reasons. Morozov wrote it was just a way for “cyber-utopian Western commentators” to justify spending so much time with Twitter (Morozov 11). Patrick Meier, author of the iRevolution and Tufts University Ph.D. candidate, said Iranians posting to Facebook and Twitter simply doesn’t make sense for two reasons: Iran’s Internet usage demographics and the dangers protestors could face if the government catches them communicating with Westerners online (Baumann 52).
Morozov said the media’s Twitter coverage and discussions may have actually stole coverage away from what was actually happening to the protestors in Iran (Morozov 54). More evidence of this can be found in examining the information above regarding how more people surveyed had heard about Twitter’s presence in reporting on Iran than on what was happening in Iran (The Pew 1). Another criticism Morozov offered was in regards to reliability. He wrote, “This new media ecosystem is very much like the old game of ‘Telephone’ in which errors steadily accumulate in the transmission process, and the final message has nothing in common with the original” (Morozov 11).
Not all agree with Morozov. Robert Mackey, editor of The Lede, a blog on The New York Time’s Web site, wrote, although some gave false claims, Twitter seems to be relatively truthful. “There seems to be very little mischief-making. People generally want to help solve the puzzle,” (Stelter 2). Some have also said Twitter acted as a media watchdog in the Iranian case (“Real-Time”). While seemingly opposed to the idea of a “Twitter Revolution” in relation to Iranian protests, Morozov does offer one positive outcome of the social media conversation surrounding the protests: Thousands of young Iranians may now want to experiment with Twitter (Morozov 14).
In even more recent months, social media’s effect on journalism was present during and after the Fort Hood shootings Nov. 5, 2009. A number of people claiming to be witnessing the events at Fort Hood tweeted and posted blog entries while the military base was locked down (Pew Research). Some mainstream media outlets picked up the stories from social media users, and some, including NBC’s Today show, The Huffington Post and The New York Times, set up aggregated lists, a new feature on Twitter, to follow comments and conversations on the topic (Pew Research). Megan Garber wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review: “Lists also represent, more significantly, a new — or, more precisely, a newly facilitated — way for news organizations to collaborate: They allow news outlets essentially to co-opt others’ reporting.
But in a good way — to the benefit of the news organizations in question and, of course, their audiences” (Garber 1). However, while some of the information reported through social media was correct, blogs and Twitter also may be responsible for spreading rumors, like one saying more than one shooter had been involved in the incident (Pew Research). 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” (Pew Research).
In conclusion, Twitter continues to play a role in breaking news. To some it appears more resilient than other tools because users can participate via a variety of mobile devices as long as an Internet connection is available (Stone 2). Morozov summed it up quite well: “In the past one needed a fortune, or at least a good name, to cause much damage (to an entity). Today, all one needs is an Internet connection” (Morozov 12).
A number of new ethical considers emerge from the shift toward journalists’ increased use of social media. One of the most discussed ethical considerations revolves around a journalist’s personal and professional presences on social media and social networking sites. Journalists must know to verify comments before posting them (Farhi 31). But when is a journalist tweeting as a reporter and when as an average citizen? Many professionals agree while journalists can post their own opinions if desired, they must keep their news organizations in mind, and the same values that apply to traditional media also apply to social media (Betancourt 3).
According to Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, “For journalists, transparency is one of the most important values. That means you don’t act as an individual, but there should be a caution gate if there’s something that might embarrass your newsroom” (Podger 34). Journalists have their own solutions to the personal-work social media balance. Cheryl Rossi, an arts and community news reporter at the Vancouver Courier in British Columbia, has two separate Facebook accounts, one for her work life and one for her personal life.
Rossi said, “It might be me being technologically superstitious, but it just seems wrong for all of my friends and professional links to be in one place,” (Podger 36). To deal with the blending of the line between work life and personal life, newsrooms, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Associated Press and The San Francisco Chronicle, have begun crafting ethics and etiquette policies surrounding social media (Podger 33).
“Traditional newspapers are eager to harness the power of social networks to find and distribute information, but they also want to do it in a way that fosters responsible use. The goals are to identify the tripwires of social networks, avoid any appearance of impropriety and ensure the information can’t be used to impugn the integrity of their reporters, photographers and editors” (Podger 33).
Another hope of journalists and communications professionals is that the ethics documents will be dynamic, “living” documents (Podger 34). Jan Leach wrote, “As (Mircrosoft CEO Steve) Ballmer put it, ‘Static content won’t cut it for the consumer in the future.’ Neither will static ethics; as media evolve so, too, will ethical guidelines” (Leach). One instance of changing ethical suggestions relates to an issue The New York Times faced. Young Times staffers began tweeting information discussed at a meeting. None were reprimanded, but the Times made changes — they asked staffers to turn off devices and were sure to signify when information is proprietary (Podger 34).
Before drawing conclusions it is also important to investigate what’s in store for the future of journalism and news organizations because of the social media revolution. First, it is possible that journalism schools will slightly alter the way they teach new journalists. For example, DePaul University in Chicago plans to offer a course called “Digital Editing: From Breaking News to Tweets” regarding Twitter and citizen journalism (“DePaul” 1). However, some think the important thing to learn isn’t necessarily how to use tools since many young people are already using them (Greenhow). Instead, professors should focus on how “tools can be applied to enrich the craft of reporting and producing the news and ultimately telling the story in the best possible way” (Lavrusik 1).
Few believe newspapers will completely cease to exist, but few will deny newspapers’ forms will change in the years ahead. David Klein wrote, “But nothing in the foreseeable future (other than the Internet being dismantled) is going to enable papers to return to their old standard of living” (Klein 2). Klein predicts daily newspapers will have smaller staffs doing more work and getting paid less. He also predicts every city will have at least one print newspaper for the foreseeable future (Klein 1).
Dean Singleton, chairman of MediaNews Group, does not think the print medium will completely dissolve. He said, “I’m still very confident that the newspaper industry will not only survive but will thrive over time. In a bit of a different model, but it still will. And I think the print newspaper will thrive over time” (Rider 4). Lewis wrote he sees journalists becoming more independent rather than belonging to single publishers (Lewis 2).
Mobile devices will also play a role in journalism’s future. A Forrester Research report suggests mobile devices, especially cell phones, will become the primary social networking “hub” (Walsh 1). Amy Gahran, consultant for the Knight Digital Media Center, also sees potential in mobile devices.
“Social media is one of the best ways to get traction with the mobile market. Far more people have crappy cell phones than computers. This allows journalists to reach lower and even middle-income communities and minorities that news organizations have been overlooking. Why are you a journalist in the first place? — Hopefully it’s more than writing articles and seeing your byline. It’s to reach communities where they are, and they’re on the phone” (Podger 36).
In the end, Picard offers a great quote to summarize what could become the future of journalism due to social media. “It is perhaps too early to judge given that experimentation with social media is in its infancy. It behooves all of us, however, to carefully observe and evaluate their development and effects. Then, we need to use what is learned to gauge whether and how a particular tool provides real benefit to a news organization or if it is depleting resources — financial and human — that could be used more effectively in other ways” (Picard).
Concluding Thoughts on the “Social Media Revolution”
Without a doubt, by examining the above data and results, one can conclude social media certainly has affected journalism and will continue to affect it in the future. While many aspects of journalism have been touched, social media has brought to light three fundamental areas within journalism: the public’s trust of the media; the importance of local news organizations and their likelihood to remain in print; and the manner in which news is and will be covered using social media.
The public’s trust, or lack thereof, in the media may have played a role in causing the social media revolution. Social media has shown the value of local news organizations as well as the advantages the new tools can bring small media organizations. Finally, social media has given journalists new ways to report and has opened the door for members of the general public who have something to say but can’t go through a journalist for one reason or another.
In general, although the American public tends to believe watchdog journalism is important, many Americans in this day and age feel reluctant to trust mainstream media, according to the public perceptions survey. They feel big business or politics or other aspects have overshadowed independent journalism, and in many instances, some, especially the younger population, have lashed out by resorting to online and social media, although not completely deserting the mainstream news organizations themselves (Loechner).
Social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube offer skeptical audiences the chance to receive news straight from the witnesses. Rather than relying on a reporter to speak with someone at an explosion in Montana, audiences can reach out and speak to eyewitnesses themselves. Or if they are one of those witnesses, they can share their story with the world before reporters even arrive on the scene (Lowery).
The situation in Montana brings one to the next important area: local media. As we become a more global world, we also become a more local world. We want to know what’s going on internationally as well as down the street because all of it affects us directly or indirectly. While international conglomerate media organizations may be seemingly failing right now, these types of organizations may find the most success in social media in the long run. However, because fewer options tend to exist for local news, local news organizations traditional media are still fairly intact and will remain fairly strong for the foreseeable future. In addition to maintaining traditional print and broadcast news, local news organizations like Lowery’s in Montana have been able to add to this local media success using social media. Also, this can help smaller organizations report important local information to large, distant media organizations that may not be there right away.
Local organizations can also obtain sources and disseminate breaking news using social media tools. The way local news organizations use social media can also apply to international and national organizations. These uses are fairly obvious, but with a little imagination, the possibilities and ways journalists can use social media will increase, improve and be able to change the world of journalism, most likely making it more honest and transparent.
Finally, as it has already done to a degree, social media will continue to change the way journalists gather and report the news. Reporters can find sources and disseminate information using social media tools. Eyewitnesses will become reporters, but the world will still need “traditional” journalists to go in and verify the facts. Perhaps in the future, professional journalists won’t be so much pure information disseminators but truth disseminators. If you want to see what people say is happening right now, check Twitter; if you want to see what’s actually true and what might be false, check CNN or The New York Times. In the end, no matter the direction it moves in or the new shape or form it takes, news organizations will never cease to exist as long as democracy and freedom of speech exists.
Researchers will develop plenty of detailed questions as the social media and journalism worlds continue to collide. How can news organizations make money from this? How can audiences and journalists sort truth from error? What will happen to print editions of large newspapers?
These and hundreds of other questions involving the future of journalism could be responded to in a million different ways, and the next generation of journalists and communications professionals will decide what will work best to preserve the basic premise of journalism: Witnessing an event and telling the story about it. After all, story telling, the defining thread of journalism, no matter what strange and new forms it may take, will never, ever cease to exist.