Social Media And How It’s Changing Journalism

By April 15, 2013

There are many things that can be said for journalism these days.  As the world becomes increasingly smaller, with communication technology that allows us to connect with anyone around the world, citizens can learn and process information as it happens from a variety of sources.  After all, news production is no longer limited to merely professionals, which is resulting in a very different landscape for journalists. However, what does this mean for us as a society and for journalism as a whole?

The way that citizens process news and information is not a new phenomena being studied.  The idea of media effects is an age-old debate, and there are many mass communication theories on the topic.  For example, if you look at Goffmann’s frame analysis theory, it’s essentially saying that individuals respond to different social cues based on their expectations.  Put simply, everyone has their own framework for which they process information and make sense of their social world, such as a news story.  It’s dictated by our own knowledge and experiences, and the media plays an important role in this.

To go one step further, Bernard Cohen’s agenda-setting theory states that the media don’t tell people what to think but rather what to think about.  For example, when a newsroom makes the decision to air a particular story at the number one position, they are placing high importance on that story for viewers.  As Iyengar and Kinder offer, the media is priming the idea, placing emphasis on one area at the expense of another.

The important question to ask is what are the influences placed on a journalist to promote particular “expectations” and not others?  In other words, what deems a story newsworthy?  The “frames” presented by journalists are incredibly important in understanding individuals’ primary reality, where people and events obey conventional norms that are widely accepted by the public.

What does this mean?

Even though information is readily accessible thanks to the Internet and advances such as social media, that doesn’t mean that reporting news and information is easier or any less important.  I would argue that the job of a journalist is more important than ever as it’s even more difficult to wade through all of the information.  Many times journalists are receiving information from all angles, having to sort through what is fact, fiction and propaganda.  It’s easy to report the facts, but as you’ll see, the role of a journalist is to provide unbiased context surrounding those facts, which is both easier and harder in today’s world.

NPR’s Andy Carvin and Social Media

Andy Carvin, NPR’s Senior Strategist, was recently in St. Louis to discuss this exact topic at their “…And the Kitchen Sink” series.  He describes his work as everything from a “news DJ” to an “online community organizer.”  We’re still learning what to call his position because what he’s doing didn’t exist in the newsroom five years ago.  For Carvin, he fully realized the important role that social media could play in news production, specifically during the protests taking place in the Middle East beginning for him in 2010.

“In December 2010, I started seeing tweets from guys I’d met in Tunisia.  They were talking about protests, which at this time would get them thrown in jail.  And here were these videos popping up of protests,” said Carvin.  “These bloggers that I knew were the Paul Revere’s of their revolution, using [social media] to work their way around the authorities and spread word across Tunisia about where protests were happening.”

Carvin, through Twitter, essentially became a “virtual embedded reporter,” covering sometimes half a dozen protests taking place within the Middle East.  “I began tweeting about it, talking to those involved, and trying to figure out what was happening,” said Carvin.  “I became a Twitter-based news anchor, using my tweeps to help me verify information.  Anything that needed to be done to cover these stories, they came out and volunteered their time.”

By utilizing the collective knowledge of his volunteers on Twitter, Carvin was able to gather and verify information almost as if he were on the ground.  Plus, when they were finally able to get someone on the ground, he worked almost “guerilla-style” helping producers verify tips and stay safe through Carvin’s tireless efforts on Twitter.  By February, he was spending 18 hours a day on Twitter, seven days a week, and his efforts did not go unnoticed.

“When events started happening in Libya, no one could verify video from there because there weren’t any reporters in Libya,” said Carvin.  “I forwarded to Twitter followers, tweeting ‘tell me what you see and hear.’  They would reply with things like I hear an eastern Libyan accent.  If you look in the background, that’s the courthouse.  Do you hear the call of prayer in background, look at prayer times, it matches this week.  I had an army of volunteers online volunteering small nuggets of time, which almost allowed me to act as I was reporting from there.”

From this, it is clear the incredible power of social media and the implications that it can have on journalism. However, that doesn’t mean citizens can stop questioning information and learning more about media literacy in today’s society.  Ultimately, it’s up to journalists and citizens to further refine their skills and figure out how to utilize social media to the best of their ability.  A great question brought up during Carvin’s presentation was related to how you verify this information.  Can you really trust social media to present a clear picture of events?

Carvin addressed it this way, stating, “I have a birds eye view.  A lot of protestors brought their cameras with them, so I could triangulate the information to verify it.  But the bigger challenge is figuring out the context of the information and remembering their agenda, too.  But just because they have an agenda does not mean everything is propaganda.  You just have to be able to look through their lens and put it into proper context.”

What do you think about the increasing role social media is playing in journalism? Are journalists using it to their advantage? Tell us why or why not in the comments.