The Social Media Revolution: Exploring the Impact on Journalism and News Media Organizations

By Ruth A. Harper
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 1/4 |

Twitter. Facebook. Digg. MySpace. LinkedIn. The list of tools could probably run on for paragraphs, and today’s changes so rapidly that many industries, including corporations and news media, can barely keep up. In the traditional world, newspapers, corporations, governments, or other types of leading organizations simply had to give out information, and people would consume it by reading or looking at it. But this seemingly tried-and-true method is transforming.

Simply making information available is not enough for today’s public. Today’s audiences expect to be able to choose what they read, and most believe they should be able to contribute content and opinions, too. This shift, sometimes called the social media , is not the death of journalism as America always knew it; it’s the birth of a democratic movement that emphasizes some of journalism’s key factors: transparency, honesty, and giving a voice to the person who doesn’t have one.

Many traditional and non-traditional media outlets report and comment on how the Internet and social media, especially social networking, have begun to seriously affect news organizations and how they operate. Although newspapers currently face a crisis on how to make the news profitable in the digital age, that isn’t this report’s main focus. How papers will make money has been talked to death. So, instead, this report will focus on how social media, especially social networking sites like Twitter, has begun to affect the news organizations and changed — for better or worse — how journalists perform their jobs every day.

The main purpose of this report is to learn how the social media revolution has changed and will continue to change journalism and news organizations. To understand social media and its effects, one must read and analyze information gathered through journal articles, interviews and observations as this report has done. The report is broken into subtopics: a summary of the current state of traditional media; definitions and background information on what social media and social journalism are; social media tools professionals use and why; current event case studies in which social media played a role in reporting the news; ethical issues surrounding the social media shift; and how the future of the news media might look as a result of social media.

The report will respond to one simple, yet rather complex, question: What impact has social media had on news organizations? A question like this cannot be answered straightforward but must instead be explored. While the report will focus on what has already occurred, it will also look to the future and will consider whether public opinions of the mainstream media have helped spawn and accelerate the birth of the social media revolution. Results will lead the report to offer three areas within journalism that social media has significantly touched: the public’s trust of the news media in relation to social media; the relationship between local news organizations and social media; and how news is and will be covered using social media tools.

Social Media Literature Review

Media industry publications and critics often mention a media shift from traditional outlets, like newspapers and magazines, to digital news sources. Going a step beyond simply being online, media organizations have begun to consider how news organizations use social media tools to keep their audiences and, most importantly, to keep bringing in funds to support themselves. Myriad opinions and ideas on the topic exist on social media’s presence in the journalism world; the volume of information can seem overwhelming.

However, this report will attempt to explain what has occurred and hypothesize on what the future holds for a world containing independent journalism and social media tools. The research gathered for this report can be grouped into four categories: the current state of traditional and social media; popular social media tools and how media use them; ethical issues surrounding journalists’ use of social media tools; and how a two-way, conversationally driven world will change journalism.

Understanding where traditional news organizations currently stand requires one to understand how audiences consume their news and what they think about the news business as it stands. Surveys by news organizations and foundations offer a way to understand the public’s thoughts quantitatively. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a survey in which it found, overall, respondents have less confidence that news organizations strive to report accurate, politically unbiased news than they had a few decades ago. In fact, the public’s confidence has reached its lowest level in more than two decades (“Public” 2).

Despite this, the Pew survey showed most respondents still think watchdog journalism is critically important (“Public” 10-11). The poll also monitored consumers’ most-used news medium, finding audiences tend to obtain national and international news from TV and the Internet (“Public” 4). However, this and a survey study conducted by the National News Association (NNA) found the opposite seems to be true for local newspapers, especially weeklies (“Annual”). The NNA’s survey found the majority of respondents spend at least 40 minutes a week reading their local newspaper and often prefer the print over the online edition (“Annual”).

A MediaPost article discussed a survey that found males tend to be more open to new media than females, and, to little surprise, the 18-to-34-year-old age group has seen the largest decline in traditional media usage (Loechner 1). This survey also found while most people said newspapers needed to change to remain relevant, users wouldn’t be willing to pay to read print magazines online (Loechner 1-2).

Before being able to define the relationship between social media and journalism, it’s vital to explain journalism’s purpose and troubles within the media industry as a whole. In a letter in the American Journalism Review, Kevin Klose wrote journalism in its purest form is about witnessing an event and recording them for others to see and read (Klose 2). Similarly, in another American Journalism Review article, Pamela J. Podger says journalism is about listening to those who have something to say (Podger 36). In his blog post titled “Social Journalism: Past, Present and Future,” Woody Lewis offers similar sentiments regarding what a “social journalist” is. He explains social media is about listening as well as interacting with others (Lewis).

Another blogger, Vadim Lavrusik, described the change from one-way communication to a community affair and how the change will assist journalists. Others, including two authors for the fall 2009 online issue of Nieman Reports, Robert G. Picard and Richard Gordon, and Chris Martin of Chris Martin Public Relations, also expressed social media can help journalists do their jobs more effectively. Journalists aren’t the only ones who benefit from news organizations’ increased presence on social media.

Others have evaluated the news media and determined social media has not only benefited journalists but has also helped give individuals a way to speak up to the world. In a book titled “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies,” Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff argue social media has empowered individuals and has forced the idea of “news media” to morph whether or not the industry has desired this change (Li 5). In his book “Twitter ,” Joel Comm argues a similar case, stating social media allows anyone to publish ideas at a relatively non-existent price (Comm 1).

Despite its positives, some have found problems with journalists in the social media world. In articles written for the fall 2009 edition of Nieman Reports, Michael Skoler discusses the media’s flawed business model and how social media could help, while Geneva Overholser argues journalists need to talk more about social media (Skoler; Overholser). Finally, in his article, “The Continuing Need for Professional Journalism,” Shel Holtz argues how bloggers’ habit of covering what interests them rather than hard news that needs to be covered could seriously damage investigative journalism (Holtz).

Without tools and applications like Twitter, social media simply wouldn’t exist. Many media professionals have reported on how journalists can use these tools. In an article for Wired magazine, Steven Levy discusses how user-oriented, real-time Twitter is changing the news media (Levy). In an article for the American Journalism Review titled “The Twitter Explosion,” Paul Farhi discusses these aspects, relating them to those in journalism and media careers (Farhi).

Two writers, Courtney Lowery and Leah Betancourt, discuss how to use (and how not to use) social media tools like Twitter for journalistic purposes (Lowery; Betancourt). Lowery goes a bit deeper than Betancourt by describing her own newspaper’s experiences with social media tools in her Nieman Reports article (Lowery). In her article for the American Journalism Review, Podger explores the importance of social media in journalism but doesn’t force employees to use the tools. However, a large number of Americans use them anyway, perhaps even more than e-mail, according to a Mashable blog entry written by Adam Ostrow (Ostrow).

Facebook and Twitter are becoming more important than ever, and part of the tools’ popularity stems from the ability to easily create one’s own applications, as Gordon’s class did. The class made a tool called NewsMixer for Facebook (Gordon). Also, Christine Greenhow and Jeff Reifman conducted a study on Facebook community involvement by creating and observing different Facebook applications (Greenhow). Finally, while these tools are popular and important, they aren’t alone. Tools like Digg.com allow users to “digg” an article or Web site they like and share it with others (Li 3). Both Li and Skoler suggest Digg.com is so useful because users trust what other users suggest for reading material as opposed to what members of the mainstream media, such as editors, might suggest (Li; Skoler).

The third literature topic required a wide use of newspaper articles because it evaluates coverage of recent international and national events. Four major events show how useful social media tools, especially Twitter, can be. The most recent event is the Nov. 5, 2009, shootings in Fort Hood, Texas. This report examines the situation using a weekly news report from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and an article from the Columbia Journalism Review’s Web site. Both of these articles discuss how social media tools — especially Twitter — allowed journalists and the public alike to report occurrences quicker than in the past, although possibly with some errors (“Pew Research”). Megan Garber’s article at cjr.org titled “Fort Hood: A First Test for Twitter Lists” examines Twitter’s new list feature and how journalists used it to report on the Fort Hood shootings (Garber).

The Iranian protests during summer 2009 offer the second example. In their article for The New York Times, Brad Stone and Noam Cohen discuss what occurred on and off Twitter during the protests. Also, Brian Stelter wrote two articles on the social media coverage of Iran for The New York Times, one discussing CNN’s coverage and another discussing the and citizen journalism in general (Stelter; “Real-Time”). Although, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the protests were one of the hottest topics of its week, some voiced concerns with the mainstream media’s vast amount of coverage on the so-called “Twitter Revolution.” In his article titled “Iran: Downside to the ‘Twitter Revolution,'" Evgeny Morozov discusses two problems with calling it a Twitter Revolution.

First, he writes there may not have been as many eye witnesses tweeting as expected for numerous reasons. Secondly, he says those Iranians who did use Twitter or blogs took a risk in being associated with Americans and considered spies (Morozov 10-14). In an InformationToday article, Michael Baumann also mentions the dangers Iranians who use social media would face; he quotes Morozov a couple times in his story (Baumann 1, 52, 54). While one of the most popular examples, the Iranian protests is just one example among many of journalists using social media.

The third and fourth case studies involve an explosion in Bozeman, Mont., in 2009 and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, , in 2008. Nationally, in “An Explosion Prompts Rethinking of Twitter and Facebook”, Lowery discusses her experiences using Twitter and Facebook when covering an explosion in Montana (Lowery). A CNN article by Stephanie Busari discusses how Twitter and other social media tools were used to spread information after the 2008 bombing in Mumbai (Busari).

One cannot talk about technology, especially social media tools, without evaluating ethical implications. For this topic, two articles served as the main sources: “Creating Ethical Bridges from Journalism to Digital News” by Jan Leach and “The Limits of Control” by Podger. Leach’s article considers how journalists and audiences will create and define news organizations in the social media realm, while Podger’s article focuses more specifically on how traditional newspapers and organizations will create ethics guidelines for employees and Web site participants.

Finally, the last topic to examine is how professionals think social media will affect journalism’s future. Many articles, including those by Podger, Picard, Klose, Gordon, Greenhow, Holtz and Lavrusik, discuss this topic. The articles describe beliefs that news organizations will move toward increasingly using mobile devices. They also suggest reporters will become more independent instead of being linked to a specific news organization for a long period of time (Podger 36; Lewis 2).

A handful of authors also discuss how the classrooms that shape future journalists will evolve with social media. In fact, one school, DePaul University in Chicago, has already created a course called “Digital Editing: From Breaking News to Tweets” that focuses on confirming sources and information from citizen journalists (“DePaul”). Surveying these data and documents will help one to gain an understanding of the direction in which journalism faces — toward increased usage of social media in daily routines.

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