Social media has become an integral part of our lives. Many of us use it every day, simply to pass time or to meet new people, or for more serious reasons such as work or study. It has become especially important since the COVID-19 pandemic, and so it is not surprising that the leading social media platforms reported in monthly active usage growth in 2021. While it has encouraged major as well as minor changes in all domains, arguably the most critical change is that it has affected how people consume news. More people now turn to social media to consume daily news, and other important news such as health information. As such, it’s important to discuss how social media is changing journalism, and what the future of traditional journalism can look like with the continuous development of social media.
Benefits of Social Media
One positive aspect about social media is that it can decrease the number of print copies, bringing down the amount of carbon footprint that is released during the production and transport stage. What happens after the consumer reads the newspaper is also important – if it’s not recycled and sent to landfill, the carbon footprint only increases. In comparison to print newspapers, browsing an hour a week online produces less carbon footprint than a weekly paper. How much less? Depending on various factors, such as the material the newspaper is printed with and how many copies of newspapers are bought in a year, it can be as little as a few kilos (which is the same as driving five to ten miles in a typical car), or as much as a tonne of CO2e a year. The more social media is used instead of print newspapers, the more beneficial it could be for the planet.
The use of social media also makes it easier than ever before to share news and important information. This was especially imperative during the COVID-19 pandemic where lockdowns made social media a very accessible resource. This is why even governments used it to promote the COVID-19 vaccine and advised users to follow the official media channels. Social media was also used to promote the COVID-19 vaccine to people of colour as a means of ensuring that health messages were delivered to all communities. Facebook was chosen to deliver the public health campaign as it allows the campaign to reach large, targeted populations. The campaign appeared 54.4 million times in newsfeeds and reached almost 10 million users.
Furthermore, consuming news through social media gives users the flexibility and freedom to use the apps they prefer, which can make them more empowered and in control of their news flow. Similar to how consumers can choose which newspaper to read, social media users also have the ability to choose what can or cannot appear in their feed; similarly, it was also found that online news consumption closely mirrors offline reading habits, where users usually visit their preferred site. As such, users have the choice to consume positive news if they prefer and can use it as a welcome relief during the pandemic.
Neutral aspects about Social Media
One major debatable point about the increasing role of social media in consuming news is that users are able to obtain news from various social media sites, which is why it plays a major role in news consumption. It’s easier now than ever to see news stories from the other side of the globe, which was especially important during the beginning of the pandemic, where social media offered easy access to health information. At the same time however, it can make it difficult to navigate through the hundreds, if not thousands of news stories in social media, which can make users drawn to entertainment news.
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Secondly, traditional journalism that is covered on TV has a stereotype that it is mostly sad or shocking news. Through research it was found that people often chose to read sad stories, as humans are designed to react quickly to potential threats, which is why there’s evidence that people respond quicker to negative words. News on social media also has a stereotype of being unreliable; news on social media is still viewed with skepticism by most Americans, and most of them agreed that it didn’t affect how they understood current events. Furthermore, it was found that news shared on Facebook decreases the overall credibility of the story.
Thirdly, social media can allow journalists to decide what to cover. This is both good and bad, as it can sway people to decide what’s news and what’s not news. Some may only cover news that’s popular on social media for coverage and popularity, and users prefer entertainment news over other news topics. As such, news organizations also follow this strategy, where they seek to grab the attention of users with entertainment news. This preference in covering news can be problematic as exposure to a variety of news stories is crucial for democratic societies.
Managing editor Danielle Sanders for the Chicago Defender states that journalists in the current age have to use social media. Luige del Puerto, a former editor and publisher of the Arizona Capitol Times argues that forms of social media, such as Twitter, have become an invaluable alternative way to find news sources, but isn’t an alternative to traditional forms of reporting. Social media also helps journalists keep up with what’s going on, and some journalists keep their DMs (digital messages) open on their accounts. This way, people can send them news tips.
Similarly, social media allows journalists to connect with their audience, and this is one of the most important reasons why journalists are active on social media, as it can reach audiences in places that they don’t expect. Other journalists argue that engaging on social media helps build credibility and popularity of journalism, and it can help build revenue.
For some like Alex Harris, they treat social media as a professional tool to promote their work and find sources. She uses social media to reach out to witnesses or those involved in any incident to create a story, and so it wasn’t unusual for her to be asked to use Twitter to reach out to students for an active high school shooter alert in February 2018. However, some of her tweets were later used to argue that journalists were evil, and her tweets were even edited to make it seem like she asked for videos of bodies or the nationality of the shooter. These fake tweets caused Alex to stop working for 1–2 days as angry people online had uncovered her social media account and were sending death threats. However when she went to her editors for help, her newsroom did not have a plan to help journalists that were assaulted online, and so they didn’t know what to do.
Image Source: The Wellesley News
Drawbacks about Social Media
The development of digital news and social media can decrease the need for print journalism. In fact, from 2002 to 2020 the estimated revenue for newspaper publishers in the United States has dropped by 52.2%, and as with any company, a decrease in revenue may limit or eradicate jobs in the future. Earlier this year Postmedia Network Corp., a newspaper publisher that owns publications such as the Vancouver Sun, National Post and Calgary Herald laid off 11% of its editorial staff. Before this occurred, employees were also told that the the company was facing ‘economic contraction’. Furthermore, in the United States newspaper outlets are being discontinued, especially as the increasing usage of social media changed advertising shifts and news consumption habits, among many others factors. Since 2004, publishers have discontinued over 1,800 newspapers. Similarly, over the past few years many newspapers in Canada have also stopped offering print copies, such as the National Post and the Brunswick News. For the Brunswick News, this was because of lower sales, which made printing and distribution difficult to manage.
Another drawback is that while the internet has allowed newspaper companies and news outlets to post articles on their websites, many of them put their stories behind a paywall, and this is becoming even more popular. As a result, stories that would’ve normally been free in paper newspapers may no longer be free. Posting articles online can allow the newspaper companies and news outlets to increase their reach and have the potential to be read from all around the world, plus it financially supports them. But at the same time, it could lead to a decrease in the amount of stories that can be read for free.
Lastly, the closure of newspaper outlets can also make it harder for people to obtain quality, reliable news during the COVID-19 pandemic. News such as how governments use COVID-19 relief money, immediate health concerns and the reopening and closures of businesses are all important stories that are usually covered by local news outlets.
The answer to “how social media is changing journalism” is more complex than a simple “yes” or “no.” Consumers must be informed on what’s credible and what isn’t, and how social media is being used to convey messages. It’s important for the next generation to be aware both at home and in school about social media and how it affects the way consumers see, consume and determine what’s news.
Image Source: News @ Northeastern
It’s important then to consider the act of fact checking news on social media, as misinformation can be shared unintentionally if they don’t know that it’s misinformation. Is it easier to fact check news stories on social media? Arguably, the answer is yes, but only if you know how. Social media and the internet provides a database that users can use to decide the credibility of the story. However, if people don’t know how to properly fact check, people may share misinformation or people can be fooled by disinformation (fake information that people share on purpose).
Consider these 6 criteria that can also be used to fact check news on social media:
- Authority (Who is the author?): Check who and what institution is making the claims. Consider it suspicious when there is no contact information about the author.
- Purpose (Why are they posting this news story?): Some accounts are meant to entertain, while others are meant to educate or inform. Most accounts will state their purpose in the account description. If the news story is posted by an account that is geared towards parody, it may not be the best account to follow for educational purposes.
- Coverage (What does the account use to prove their claims?): News stories will often include links which can be easily accessed, and users can see if the evidence aligns with the argument. If there are no links, or if the links are to their own posts or to other posts on social media, it may not be a credible source.
- Currency (Is the account up to date?): If the account hasn’t posted anything for a long time, it’s a sign that their news stories may not be current. Also, check the links in their posts to see if they’re up to date as well.
- Objectivity (Is the account biased?): Related to the second criteria, check to see if the account is living up to its purpose. See if it’s biased or if it’s trying to persuade the audience in a certain way.
- Accuracy: (Is what the account claiming accurate?): While using the above five criteria, consider if the content is accurate. Is the account linked to a reputable institution? Do they have proper grammar? Is it comparable to other accounts with the same or similar purpose?
If the answer is no to any of the above questions, it is a good sign that the account is not accurate in their claims.
Check out my other article How to Distinguish between Reliable and Unreliable Sources Online for more help on fact checking, even outside of social media accounts.