16 April 2012

Journalism vs social media

The impact of social media on commercial journalism is often overestimated, and the audience size is still limited compared with mainstream news media. Yet the impact is real enough and likely to grow: job losses at CNN in 2011 were just one example, as the company makes greater use of public-sourced videos and photos in its iReports.

There is still a role for professional journalists, and for good reason. Most are trained, experienced and bound by professional principles and laws. They typically pride themselves for sifting the 'truth' or at least verifying facts before publishing. That includes not taking tweets at face value and seeking out balanced, expert opinions. Most journalists also know how to tell a good story, and some have a large personal following.

Of course not all journalists are up to this standard, and some bloggers have huge followings and some maintain very high standards of accuracy and balance. Hearing directly from a law maker or a scientist can be more powerful and detailed than traditional journalism allows.

Social media is now having a big impact in modern journalism, as this report by Paul Sawers of The Next Web attests. Based on discussions at the Social Media Week in London in February 2012, he quoted Paul Lewis, Special Projects Editor at the Guardian, on four key ways that social media is shaking things up:
  1. Finding people (crowdsourcing information, witnesses or other key figures in a story);
  2. Creating personalities from activists, bloggers and others who would otherwise not be given a voice;
  3. Major events like the London riots e.g. following leads and chasing stories via Twitter, and keeping readers informed ahead of a formal publishing schedule;
  4. Small actions making a big impact (the 'butterfly effect') e.g. a tweet containing very valuable information that sets off a big story.

There are many millions of people using Google+, Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Yet these channels do not fully represent public opinion. The tweets and posts will continue to represent special interests until social media is accessible to the urban poor, rural communities, the illiterate, the oppressed and people living and working in every country of the world. Until then, social media offers activists and other special interests the opportunity of a higher profile than they otherwise might get in a crowded media environment.

Social media is a growing communication channel, but there remains an important role for professional journalists to filter and validate that information.