Citizen Journalism and Social Media

This a blog post that I wrote for my Communications class a few weeks ago. The class, taught by Professor Lindsay Hoffman, was an introduction into analyzing how the media and politics work together to form what we know as “political communication.” Prof. Hoffman featured several students’ entries from our class on her blog for The Huffington Post.

Here is what I had to say about citizen journalism:

In this age of expanding internet and social media, more people are turning to online sources for their news. It’s faster, easier and more convenient when we are already perpetually connected. This also requires news outlets to produce news content at an unprecedented rate. News organizations are constantly competing to be the first to break a story, if not the only ones to do so, and it’s very convenient that Twitter’s “retweet” button allows for quick and vast dissemination of any piece of information. It is just this exact tool that also gets news outlets into trouble as we can see with the false breaking news that South Carolina’s Governor, Nikki Haley, would soon be indicted.

An article in the New York Times details how the unfounded information, posted on a small blog, called the Palmetto Public Record, went viral after just about twenty minutes. In the race to be first with information, the blog article was reposted by several news organizations, including major news outlets like the Washington Post. With tens of thousands of followers, the false information quickly spread across the nation and cyberspace. News organizations made corrections later, but the damage to Haley’s reputation was done.

We’ve discussed in class that multi-media is becoming more and more popular, especially online sources such as Twitter, where consumers can get news in 140 characters or less. This is especially appealing to the public as iPhone and iPad sales increase and computer screens are made even smaller. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook also allow for the public to feel that they are more a part of the news process by promoting “retweets” and “likes” so that friends and followers can stay up to date on the news as well.

The trend of this so-called “citizen journalism” becomes more popular with blogs and Twitter because we know that realistically, news correspondents and journalists can’t be everywhere, covering everything. We have come to rely on this citizen journalism to fill us in on the things that major news organizations miss and to fill the holes with on-the-scene footage and pictures. Major news channels and TV networks, like CNN and NBC ask the audience to send in photos of storms, for example, or if they “see news happening” to call the hotline. As a society, we have come to accept this and we trust the major news outlets to filter out the information and present what is real and true in an unbiased way. But this takes time and resources—things that journalists can’t afford if they want to stay on top and keep their ratings higher than anyone else’s. This is all part of the politics of the media. The ideal of the news is to report events objectively, but the reality is that news needs to appeal to the audience in order to get viewers and readers and to stay in business.

This leads us to stories such as Haley’s false indictment reports. News outlets and citizen bloggers are so anxious to get the news and spread the news—especially when it is scandalous and sensational, two things that make a story newsworthy—so the fact-checking and filtering stops. It is natural to say, next, that journalists are humans and as capable of making mistakes as anyone else. But the ease and speed of social media dissemination leads to grave errors, spread to tens of thousands of people. So where do we draw the line? Is citizen journalism only valuable to the public up to a point?

We recently discussed in class that the media have the ability to frame the way the public sees the story.  A story can be framed in many different ways, depending on the context and the word choice and language used. There is no story written that was not written with some kind of frame. This goes along with the notion of bias that we talked of earlier in the semester as well. Journalists are required to present the news objectively, without bias. But there is rarely a case where there isn’t at least a little bias. As we also said, there is no one “truth,” there is only the truth as we see it, and each person sees it differently. So who is to say that the way the citizen journalist sees a story or event, is worse or less truthful than the way the New York Times journalist may see the same event? This is what advocates of citizen journalism may say.

However, we also know that journalists at news organizations have been trained to check facts and examine all possible known sides of a story. Citizen journalists on the other hand, have not, and their blogging and tweeting therefore cannot and should not be evaluated on the same level.

We saw the detrimental effects of social media news dissemination when Joe Paterno’s death was falsely reported and reposted by and to millions on Twitter. The New York Times wrote an article afterwards explaining the mix-up and what followed as they tried to make sense of the power of social media.

Social media outlets allow for non-journalists to post and repost “news” or even just commentary and false information can go viral all too easily. While social media sites are admittedly a growing outlet for news, the information must be critically evaluated before it can be noted as “truth.” Many citizens do not have the knowledge to read news critically and to accurately make a judgment on its authenticity. Until all citizens can effectively evaluate information on social media sites themselves, there is no way that we can use Twitter and Facebook as effective tools for “citizen journalists.”

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