Social Media & Journalism

This past Tuesday evening, I attended an event at LEWIS PR presented by the Social Media Club of San Francisco.  The event centered around a panel discussion composed of a variety of journalists and social media reps that discussed the topic of "Social Media & Journalism." As my background is in journalism, I get very fired up about any discussions pertaining to the state of the journalism industry. As my current passions lie in social media, this was far too perfect an evening.

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The panel consisted of Harry McCracken, editor at large at Time Magazine (you may have heard of it), Annie Scudder, editor of Sugar Inc. (an online women's lifestyle magazine of sorts), Arabella Santiago, co-founder of Scoop.it (a site that gathers a variety of different online news articles and categorizes them for users) and Sean X Cummings, an outspoken writer who's been featured in the Huffington Post and the New York Times and founder of SXC Marketing. The discussion was excellently moderated by Morgan McLintic of  LEWIS PR.

The event started by making reference to how far away we are from what we initially feared citizen journalism to be. The point instantly got my mind going back to 2005 and the start of my journalism education at Northeastern University, where numerous first year professors warned of the dangers of citizen journalism. They warned us that while we would be the trained professionals, many other people were going to lay claim to the title, "journalist."

The citizen journalism they feared were people who would be writing news with a lack of basic journalism standards on how to ethically create a news piece i.e. how to be objective, what credible sources were, etc. During my tenure at NU I remember certain professors discussing how blog writers were the enemy.  They were giving biased, sometimes sensationalized, sometimes UNTRUE, information. Professors feared that this would not be news and that people would mistake it to be so.

Then social media came into the picture and really took off spewing out tidbits of information of all sorts on numerous different platforms seemingly capitalizing and increasing this initial fear. Oh no, could that Facebook update about someone's opinion on the election be news?!

Well....yes and no.

The discussion and fears of citizen journalism and how social media is affecting the news has shifted from this original conversation that was reiterated to me during my journalism education and moved more towards a discussion of how social media is INFLUENCING the news, for better or worse.  The panel discussed the challenges and successes of this shift at length during the event.

I think the shift is that people aren't relying on blog posts and social media status updates FOR their news, but are rather using it to supplement their news and knowledge base. Even the news sometimes uses social media to help exemplify the news!

Here are some interesting points that I took away from the discussion:

  • Does social media determine what's news?

Sometimes, yes.  According to Scudder, who mentioned that often times at Sugar Inc. they go back to stories to see users responses via their different social media platforms to determine how popular they were. In that sense they see what their readers like to see and how they respond to it and want to give them more similar content. I think it's a little more acceptable for Scudder to approach, SUBTLY still, doing the news in this way.  Sugar Inc., is a women's lifestyle magazine.  It's not breaking news. This is by no means an attack on the publication! I'm just saying, for example, for her to choose a Q and A story about celebrity A over celebrity B because people tend to like to hear more about celebrity A, is that really "ruining" the journalistic credibility of her magazine? I don't think so. If the New York Times were to approach the news this way, I would feel differently.

  • How is social media helping journalism?

Scudder mentioned how social media helps her become more interactive with her readers and the other panelists all agreed.  This is definitely an advancement form the news say 15 years ago when reader response was received via snail mail. Sure you could have a "letters to the editor" page that would spark interesting debate or discussion about last week's or yesterday's news, but now you can have great conversations, debates and ideas sparked in the comments below the articles instantaneously.

However, those comments can also be used in a way that negatively affects on the news. (see the above question) If a news organization abuses this and only writes the articles that get the most comments, then that's not exactly presenting "all the news that's fit to print."

Furthermore, another point in how social media helps journalists that Cummings brought up is that social media followers are GREAT fact checkers and are often the first to let a writer know when he or she has misused information.

  •  The Associated Press tells its writers to stay away form personal social media at all costs, is this appropriate?

The answer form all the panelists and myself was a resounding, no. It's no longer the world we live in. You can't hide from social media. Furthermore, people want to connect with a person, not with a brand. (LOVED that point- made by Cummings.) I mean sure as a known professional connected with a news organization you should certainly make sure your social media platforms aren't a place for you to bash said news organization, but you should still be allowed to express yourself and your articles. Transparency is the trend.  It's the norm. People want it. People EXPECT it. In a society that is still recovering from the recession, an event that happened because most people were unaware of what was happening behind closed doors of big banks, transparency holds more clout than ever.

  • Is social media closing our minds?

This is not a question from some outlier of society but rather was sparked by Time's McCracken.  I've heard many fears of social media and its affects on society expressed, but this point really got my wheels turning.  McCracken pointed out that humans have always inherently "flocked to micro groups." In a world where social media offers very specific micro groups that we can feel a part of, are we closing our mind to open discussions because we can find those micro groups which are telling us what we want to hear? We now have the ability to only hear what we want.

Personally, I think in some ways, yes, social media is contributing to more closed minds. In a world that's becoming globalized due to mass improvement in technology, isn't it ironic to think that as we grow more global we could actually be closing ourselves off?

  • Is the news industry a "bad guy" for wanting to make money?

Well, the news has always wanted to make money as McCracken pointed out. This made me laugh as I thought of Hearst and his glory days in the newspaper industry. Now, with the world moving at warped speed and a thousand different choices to make a day, more often then not, we choose to be ENTERTAINED do we not? Are we not as guilty as the news? If you had an option between watching the nightly news and your favorite television program, how many of you would pick your show over the news? Think about THAT.

One thing that really warmed my heart about journalism and social media was a point that McCracken kept hitting on.  He started off mentioning that he pleases himself as a writer first.  He knows what good writing is and he knows when he's written a good, round news story. He says that generally these are the most popular stories. Then later, when discussing if SEO was important to keep in mind when writing news, McCracken replied, "If it's good enough, it doesn't matter."

A true journalist to his core and, more importantly, a very strong message: if you believe in what you do, others will too.

I couldn't have been more impressed with the chosen panelists.  I think all had relative comments in line with the current journalism and social media industries that left my mind reeling.  There were no "sides" taken.  It was refreshing in that the panel discussion was a discussion about the current trends in the industry and where that may or may not be taking us.  The discussion at its core is what I hope for in the industry; open mindedness, acceptance and collaboration.