Has social media destroyed journalism? That question has been frequently asked with the rise of Twitter, Snapchat, and other social media sources being used in the news. Proponents say social media brings a wider variety of people to an issue and can give a voice to those who were once voiceless and overlooked.
“It means we can get information from corners of the world where previously there was very little. It gives the ‘voiceless’ a chance to speak. It democratizes media and allows viewers, listeners and readers to participate.” Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor of UK’s Channel 4 News
There are many others who say that social media shouldn’t be used in reporting, that social media can’t be trusted. These people point out the many times that reporters, sometimes big name reporters, overlook or under-check their sources and wrongfully report on an issue.
Dylan Roof Is Not a “My Little Pony” Fan
Such was the case when Pulitzer Prize winner Frances Robels published a New York Times article claiming Dylan Roof – the shooter in Charleston, South Carolina who killed nine people at a predominantly black church – was a fan of “My Little Pony” and had a Tumblr account detailing his “brony” love.
Benjamin Wareing, the 16-year-old behind the act, tricked the investigative journalist into thinking he was friends with Dylan Roof. Wareing said in an interview with Fusion that he never met Roof nor communicated with him, never found a Tumblr account belonging to Roof, and that the “My Little Pony” story was created out of thin air. His reason for wanting to dupe reporters? Wareing says he misled journalists to show, “how easily media can be influenced without proof” and to highlight how some reporters obtain information without fact-checking.
In this case, Frances Robels and the New York Times were led to believe that they could rely on their sources, when, instead, they were being purposefully misled to prove a point: social media can’t be trusted.
— The Listening Post (@AJListeningPost) June 26, 2015
What Studies Suggest
A report released in 2014 by ING showed that many reporters use social media, despite having doubts about its reliability. The report detailed that half of the international journalists who were asked to participate in the survey relied on social media as their main source of information, although around a third of them admitted that social media posts are not reliable sources of information.
Further still, half of the journalists surveyed said they publish first and check facts later, with 80 percent of journalists saying they occasionally publish without any fact-checking at all.
A Growing Trend?
The journalists surveyed said they expect media groups to rely more on user-generated content (tweets, videos, pictures) in their reports, and that public opinion used and accepted as truth will grow in importance. Furthermore, journalism is expected to be driven more by views and clicks, and less by content.
Additionally, journalists are feeling the pressure from their editors to publish as quickly as possible, with 52 percent of PR professionals saying they are being contacted less to verify facts since the advent of social media.
The expectation to “publish first and correct later,” a motto used in the report to detail the trend among the journalists surveyed, might be on the rise.
Publish First, Check Later
Is this really the trend among journalists? According to the ING survey conducted, it is. Using social media is a newer tool for journalists that, according to Jane Elizabeth, isn’t being fact-checked correctly yet.
To address this problem, Jane Elizabeth, Senior Research Project Manager at the American Press Institute, has created a fact-checking project aimed at helping journalists “infuse solid fact-checking into the journalistic process — whether it’s writing stories, building charts, making videos, or creating any element for news.” The goal of the project is to train media organizations to use better fact-checking processes with social media and other sources.
— Jane Elizabeth (@JaneEliz) June 3, 2015
Furthermore, the paper “Where and Why Do Journalists Fact-Check” released at the Midwest Political Science Association conference showed that reporters fact-check politicians more than before, which shows that while journalists are pressured by their editors to get a story out as soon as possible (often ignoring facts), there are organizations who have realized this fact-checking problem and are addressing it. It is up to journalists and media organizations to adopt these tools when using social media or other sources in their reports.
Social Media Can Be Used Wisely
Despite this trending problem, there are journalists that are fact-checking. A report was released by think tank the Atlantic Council in which social media posts and open source information were fact-checked to show possible Russian military operations in Ukraine, a position often denied by Russian authorities.
The report “Hiding in Plain Sight” looked at social media usage among supposed Russian military personnel, often finding selfies of the soldiers in Ukraine. The soldier selfies were tracked by location technology used by the user’s phone or application.
“We’re using open source and social media investigation, which means looking at things that are posted online. For example, we’ve got soldiers that are posting videos and photographs of themselves in both Russia and Ukraine. We’ve got images of (Russian) military vehicles that are appearing in Russia and then Ukraine – vehicles that are unique to Russia that are appearing in Ukraine time and time again.” Eliot Higgins, citizen journalist
According to the report, many of the pictures taken by the soldiers showed credible evidence that Russian military personnel were inside Ukraine around the same time supposed military operations were being conducted by Russia.
What Do You Think?
These two examples show that social media can be used properly or improperly. Should social media be used by journalists in their reports? Has Facebook, for example, helped journalists in their reports? Will reporting get better because of social media, or will it get worse?