Why social media is killing journalism

Good journalism takes a little time. That’s just how it is. In the old days – and I overindulged just a little at my 36th birthday dinner a few weeks ago so the old days for me were not so long ago – journalists used to talk to real people. Untitled Real sources. We used to check things out. Of course we got things wrong but by and large most of us did a stand up job, most of the time. We used to have some highfalutin notions that our work had value; that people used to read it and take notice; that we were more than the sum of our parts, playing some sort of fundamental role in a democracy.

But it was easier then. Us newspaper hacks had the day – or days in some cases – to do it. It was always a bit more of a rush for broadcasters, but the checks and balances of having to have a source on tape, or on camera, were there.

In an era of instant news, where Twitter is fast replacing traditional reporting as the main source of breaking news for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, the rules of engagement have been turned on their head. In an era where being first is all that matters, being right is unfortunately being left behind.

There have been many articles written in the last week about how “new” media is making a mess of reporting – most recently with the Boston bombings. But traditional media organisations have been getting it wrong too, like the New York Post, and CNN. Here are some recent articles worth reading on the subject:

First, from MSN News, which reports that there are unconfirmed reports that the New York Post’s front page story ‘Bag Men’ is incorrect. The Post had claimed two people it pictured had carried the bombs, but this was later proved incorrect. What is really interesting about this article however is a disclaimer at the bottom by MSN News, saying they do their best to report confirmed news, but in cases where they can’t confirm news, they will report the rumour, tell you what they can about it, and what they can’t confirm. They even have an email address for rumours.

Second, from the New York Times, where David Carr writes that CNN has been tarnished by repeated errors.

And third from Jack Shafer in his Reuters blog, who says news organisations have always made mistakes, even the good/big ones.

Shafer has some valid points – especially about mistakes – and if that’s all it was, then I think we could all sleep soundly at night. But my concern is that there is something fundamentally changing about how news is being reported, and perhaps even the very definition of the word itself is changing.

These days, I spend most of my time talking about the media to bright, articulate and engaging young journalism students. One of the most striking differences, I guess, in how news has changed is the move toward what Alan Rusbridger has coined as “open” or “mutual journalism” The Guardian have pioneered it as a new way of reporting the world – an interconnected web where the story constantly evolves, where we are all part of the story, reacting to, updating, changing, and commenting on it.

I really liked the ‘three little Piggies’ ad. But more and more I’m beginning to wonder what it is that mutual journalism is doing to traditional news values, and to news standards. Fundamentally, what is the value of a reader’s comment? Or a viewer’s tweet? Why do we care what our readers think? Most of the commentary is ill-informed, ill-judged, and (in some cases) ill-mannered, libelous, racist, and vile. Sure, crowd sourcing has tremendous value (as does curation as a sort of Richter scale for news events) but why do we need the commentary along with it? Twitter reaction is now reported as a valid news story. Re-tweets and comments about what is being reported are turning journalism into a popularity contest. Trending or going viral is now something to be aspired to. Some, though not all, news organisations are now conducting ‘hit counter’ journalism, where what’s trending and what’s popular gets reported and what isn’t doesn’t. But in the race to be popular does the harrowing, the worthy and the serendipitous get left behind?

Journalism is not the X Factor. Some news organisations, I’m beginning to believe, have lost sight of this.

This isn’t a rant against the evils of social media and to suggest that news organisations should not be competing in the social media arena is ridiculous.
Neither it is an attack on digital journalism – online has the capacity to produce better journalism than the paper version even could. Nor is it an attack on Twitter. Twitter is probably the most powerful tool journalists in the digital era have at their disposal. It has probably had more of a democratising effect than any other media in history. As a tool to disseminate and share, it has no equal.

It is the fundamental values, not the medium, that I’m referring to.

Not so long ago people used to walk around standing on soap boxes and wearing cardboard signs tied with string around their necks. We used to call them cranks. Now we call them tweeters.

Trust. It’s a funny word. There’s a reason I like to listen to National Public Radio on my wi-fi radio. There’s a reason I read The Irish Times, the Guardian, and the many other newspapers that I pick up. I trust what they tell me to be true. A team of trained professionals has taken the time to source, to fact check, to edit and to attempt to be fair and balanced. Sure it’s campaigning from time to time. It’s agenda-setting, absolutely. Columnists take a view, of course they do. Not everything gets reported and some of the reporting gets it wrong some of the time. But by and large I trust it.

But I can’t and I don’t trust social media.

I came across this video tonight on Twitter, it was re-tweeted by Mark Little, the former RTE US correspondent and now CEO of Storyful. It’s a cartoon from YouTube, so just how credible it is, well that’s questionable. But it raises some fundamental points about journalism.

Traditional media, particularly newspapers, are dying because the business model – built around circulation and advertising – is well and truly bust. News organisations are desperately scrambling online, and in an effort to stay relevant, are trying to compete in the social media sphere. But the real value that traditional media can best bring is to be a trusted source. Instead, more and more journalists are trying to share the space with the trolls, the ranters and the ravers. In an effort to feed an insatiable beast, journalists are swamping social media with volume instead of value. Journalists are trying to be first with the news, instead of being right. Traditional news values are being lost.

Never before has it been so important to have trusted sources; what we’re getting is unreliable rubbish. What we desperately need now more than ever is credible, reliable journalism.

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2 responses to “Why social media is killing journalism

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