Social media: a journalist’s friend or foe?

18 November 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

The social media world continues to advance at a dizzying pace. And, it seems that more and more journalists are taking the plunge into social media. A recent survey provides evidence that the majority of journalists now “depend” on online sources when researching their stories. The findings highlight the growing social media trends, particularly among reporters.

The survey, jointly conducted by Cision and Don Bates of The George Washington University (GWU), indicates that 89% of journalists surveyed use blogs for story research, 65% turn to social networking sites such as Facebook, 52% source their stories from microblogging sites such as Twitter, and 61% use Wikipedia.

Yet surprisingly, only 15% of journalists surveyed think that social media is “important” to their reporting efforts.

Bates says his main objective for conducting the survey with Cision – one of the world’s leading providers of media monitoring services – was to ‘find out how the media used the internet and social media’. The results suggest that more reporters are using online sources, including social media, as a first-check method for obtaining facts and background when they’re preparing stories.

However, as Bates explains, despite more journalists turning to online sources, survey participants identified “accuracy” and “reliability” as a major concern, thus raising questions about the ethical challenges of online and social media sources.

‘Just because [journalists are] using these sources doesn’t mean they believe everything they discover.  In fact, most journalists are suspicious of what they find at first blush.  They know, as I think we all should know regardless of profession, that the internet is replete with fraudulent stories, false allegations, suspect quotes, biased commentary, and clever marketing ploys,’ says Bates.

‘For journalists, online sources, including social media, are a convenient quick-and-dirty place to do research but that doesn’t and shouldn’t … negate more traditional sources even as the power of online sources increase because of the sheer magnitude of what’s on the internet and how easily it can be accessed,’ says Bates, who teaches public relations writing and media relations at The George Washington University.

The findings also shed some light on the potential of social media, and the impact it will have on journalism practice. Don Bates is of the view that social media will only grow in the future.

‘Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, et al, are the tip of the iceberg; many more entities like these are coming and with ever-increasing rapidity.  The technology involved not only encourages innovation – it necessitates it. As a result, social media in all its forms will have an enormous impact on how journalism is practiced.  As is already happening, the speed at which stories are researched, written and produced will lead to more of what I call “snackable” writing, shorter news and feature stories, and less formulaic styles and formats,’ he says.

This so-called “snackable” writing of “shorter news and feature stories” would create a number of other challenges for journalists, especially when publishing on social media platforms. Apart from raising questions about the sustainability of news stories in their  traditional form, there are questions about the state of journalism jobs – the cost factor. For instance, what does the future hold for traditional newsroom departments and personnel?

When asked what he thinks about the future of legacy media and the opportunities that lie ahead for publishing on social media platforms, Bates doesn’t mince his words.

‘Stories will have to be developed and written with simultaneous publication in mind, both online and off.  I hope not, but I suspect that journalism will become less mediated by editors and proofreaders; they are “too expensive” in the scheme of things.  This will require more self-discipline by journalists since they will bear ultimate responsibility for virtually all that they write and publish.’

In other words, if Bates’s suspicions are truly accurate, reporters won’t have editors to blame for errors and omissions. This would in turn hold journalists more accountable for what they produce. In his view, social media will also become a source for publishing the stories journalists write, as is already happening today.

‘More and more journalists will have their own blogs and websites where they can amplify what they’ve published online or off.  They will have greater opportunities to comment on what they’ve done and why, and add nuance and interpretation for their readers and viewers. They will also be able to “merchandise” their contributions beyond their primary medium’s audience.  Some of the more successful may end up creating their own medium or media online, maybe their own social media that provide a different perspective than what people can expect from traditional newspapers, magazines, TV and radio.’

The survey also highlights some key ethical issues faced by journalists when using social media for researching stories. As Bates discovered, accuracy and credibility of online sources, including social media, were a major issue for journalists. Bates flags the real dangers that every journalist should watch out for when adopting new social media tools.

‘Make one mistake with what you use and say … and your credibility can be shot in a matter of days, if not hours. I think it’s more imperative than ever to contact sources directly by phone in order to check facts, get corroboration, [and] gain a more objective handle on the truth.’

Here, the PR industry veteran makes a valid point. I continually ask myself: What happened to traditional media? What happened to the traditional methods of communication for story research? After all, these are all part and parcel of the journalistic profession.

‘There are so many ideas and insights that it’s difficult to make the right choices as to what’s newsworthy and pick the most authoritative sources for comment.  Some people online are very articulate but they may not be experts.  Using them as resources could unwittingly compromise a good story.  Using or favouring particular blogs could also undermine the credibility of a given journalist.  He or she could become too dependent on the one source – or a few – rather than reaching beyond to assure the most accurate, credible presentation of the facts,’ says Bates.

In addition, the legal issues journalists must face – or be aware of – when using social media for story research are ‘pretty much the same as they are in traditional media; avoiding plagiarism, invasions of privacy, [and] theft of intellectual property’, according to Bates.

Furthermore, journalists must adhere to the highest standards of ethical behaviour, reflecting the journalistic standards in their writing. And, as Bates explains, independent or emerging journalists must be extra vigilant to circumvent legal challenges in the online environment.

‘As independent or emerging journalists, they may not have the legal firepower to defend themselves against allegations of ‘wrongdoing’.  They may have to fight law suits out of their own pockets.  If nothing else, it means that independent or emerging journalists who work online will have to engage legal services and absorb the attendant costs.’

This, of course, could seriously chill investigative inquiry.

As a result, journalists in general, regardless of their status as independent or emerging, need to be well aware of the obvious ‘seduction’ (as Bates describes it) of new social media tools, their ease of use, their quick facts, their bias in many instances, their subjectivity and their promotional slant, especially in the case of  politicians and corporate interests.

Yet despite the disadvantages social media can bring – and the ethical and legal challenges all journalists must be mindful of when using the internet – there are some obvious benefits which enhance the potential value of using online and social media sources. And, blogs can be very helpful too, says Bates.

‘Social media provide a wealth of ideas and insights because of the breadth of available information and resources. Blogs, in particular, can be very useful for gaining a more objective perspective on a given story because their authors and readers give differing opinions and views.  Plus, there are many blogs that are in business to assist journalists in their quest for the facts, many founded by people who once worked for the entities the journalists are following or trying to understand.’

From my own experiences, social media  broadens the average journalist’s pool of contacts and connections, putting them in touch with people and organisations they might never have known about through traditional research sources.

In fact, BBC journalists have been told to embrace social media as ‘a primary source of information‘. When asked for his views about the use of social media as a primary source by journalists, Bates says:

‘I don’t see how journalists can avoid making social media a primary source.  They are ubiquitous.  There are scores of them and tens of millions of people use them.  In the near future, hundreds of millions will use them.

‘Increasingly, they are the way most people breathe life into their lives; they are their passport to the world.  Yes, most of what they do in social media has little to do on the surface with what the media cares about most intimately, but that will change as social media become second nature in humankind’s decision-making, buying habits, investment strategies, political beliefs, entertainment choices, continuing education, and personal and professional interaction.’

Bates’s findings suggest pretty much what other media have been saying for a long time, whereby the rapidly changing media landscape is in a constant state of flux. However, do these survey results show that the quality of journalism is actually being undermined?

‘The quality of journalism has always depended on the quality of the journalists and the media they work for.  Social media will only undermine the better journalists and journalistic standards that I think we all admire and desire if journalists and their employers allow it.  To keep things in balance, journalists have to be more vigilant and less compromising.  They have to fight to maintain their standards; they have to resist the temptation to succumb to the money and manipulation inherent in social media.’

So, can social media overtake traditional media? And, is social media a threat to its traditional counterpart? In Bates’s opinion, the simple answer is yes, although legacy media are rapidly adapting new techniques and strategies to circumvent the threats, especially within the online environment.

‘Social media are a clear threat to traditional media; they have been for several years now.  That’s a given.  But traditional media are quickly adapting to the threat by creating their own online presence, their own social media as it were,’ Bates says.

‘Most daily newspapers, for example, have print editions as well as ever stronger online editions.  Everything is 24/7 in a much more serious sense than in the past. The media have always been a 24/7 proposition if you think about it; it’s just that now it’s an imperative, you avoid it at your peril.’

With his wealth of knowledge and experience in public relations, Don Bates has some timely advice for all journalists on how to approach – and not approach – social media.

‘Adhere to the high standards of journalistic excellence – remind yourself and your colleagues again and again. Avoid social media’s seductiveness like the plague – stay calm, stay true to yourself.  Succumb to its sexy wiles at your peril,’ he warns.

‘Try as you might, you can’t escape the impact of social media.  They’re here, they’re powerful and they will become more so in the years ahead.  Learn to use them better than the PR, marketing and advertising professions.’

For Bates, the good news is ‘that social media and traditional media will eventually merge so seamlessly that the idea of media as a collective noun won’t need any adjectives to distinguish itself. “Social” will disappear as media integrate. And, while this is occurring, the challenges of accuracy and credibility will remain but in a larger context. As scary as it sounds, social media will increasingly become the foundation of human thought and interaction.’

Resource Guide

This 24-page document details the survey findings conducted by Cision and Don Bates from September 1, 2009 to October 13, 2009.

Official press release on social media survey issued by Cision in January 2010.

This article, written by PR counsellor and educator Don Bates, provides a detailed discussion of how media relations will evolve over the next decade or so.

Don Bates talks about the media and “new” media in this video posted on Facebook by The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

Giulio Di Giorgio is a Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.