Journalism vs. Social Media

It’s so strange. Just a couple of days ago, I said to a friend the problem with social media is that all of these new organizations and reporters and politicians use it. It was a problem in my mind, as I said to her. because it blurs the reality of these things with the fiction of social media.

In my head, journalism is something that is held apart, to a higher standard. There are rules for it. There are Stylebooks. There are strategies. There are ethics.

When I began studying print journalism at the University of Southern California in 2000, newspapers were just beginning to put content online. I clearly remember one professor saying that she would never read the news online because it wasn’t “real.” She held newspaper reporting to a higher standard. It had to be thoroughly researched and carefully edited so it could be trusted. She felt that live streams, even on television, were a bit suspect. That is what I learned, and, quite frankly, it was what I believed long before I took her class. My father watched CNN, but it was the Los Angeles Times that was the true journalism.

During my last year (in 2004), USC began an online journalism degree. It was a great debate in the school. The expert journalists (who held Pulitzer prizes and had covered Vietnam and major moments in US history) felt that it was a totally different realm of writing and reporting. In some ways, it was journalism in progress, to satiate people’s hunger for news until a full newspaper article could be written.

For four years, I would buy a copy of the Los Angeles Times on my way to classes. I would carry it around and read most of the sections rather carefully. The only ones I tossed aside were the classified, the occasional auto sections, and when I was really busy the calendar section. I had an online subscription to the New York Times that I would read on computers in libraries between classes. When I left college, I began teaching and would leave my home at 6:30 in the morning. I was no longer afforded the luxury of reading an entire newspaper, so I was thrilled when content was put online. I read the Los Angeles Times and New York Times every morning as I had always done, only now it was on my computer instead of my bag.

Now, five years after that, I followed a historical presidential election solely online and through the nightly broadcast of MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann. The campaign of now-President Obama also utlized Facebook and Twitter and a variety of other things, but I didn’t take them seriously, only as a means to spread the New York Times articles I was reading.

Today, I sadly cannot pick up the Los Angeles Times save for the sports section. It has been completely destroyed by the Tribune Co., and it pains me to read because it is simply a shadow of the great newspaper it used to be. I read the New York Times daily with the same subscription I started nine years ago. But, now, I have a host of news sources. I signed up for Twitter, and my first 50 “friends” were all news feeds. I follow reporters and CNN and MSNBC and bloggers. I scan my Facebook home page for news stories. All the while, I just assumed these social media sites were simply avenues for finding information, and they serve that purpose very well. They disseminate information faster than almost any other means.

Even through all of that, until this morning, I still would have said it wasn’t real journalism. This very morning I was on the New York Times home page strongly considering a weekend subscription so I could savor each section leisurely and absorb all of the weekend sections.

It wasn’t until something caught my eye on Twitter about noon today that I realized how different our world is today. There was a post about rioting in Tehran. I immediately went to the New York Times site and read the short story they had posted on their homepage. I also turned on MSNBC and flipped instantly to CNN. Neither station was covering the outbreak of protests in Tehran.

So, I went back to Twitter. I pulled up the tag #iranelection and a host of Tweets showed up on the page, detailing the violence and sharing links to photographs. I even found a Flickr stream of photographs of Tehran that had been updated within the hour.

It was that moment today that I realized that this social media is reality. The blur of real and fiction and truth and misrepresentation is so far faded that there’s nothing we can do now. When major news entities are giving very little information about major world news, it lies in the hands of the people to inform. And they have. What this means, I don’t entirely know. I do know that there has been a shift. It is a shift that allows me to write this and my endless ramblings on baseball and life. It gives every person the space to share their own truth.

As always, my admiration for the field of journalism is that at its very core it is a fundamental desire to tell the truth. Whether that truth occurs in a 500-world column that has been edited twice and researched thoroughly or in the 50 snapshots uploaded to a social media site so the entire world can see, I feel very fortunate to have seen this evolution. For as much as I would like to say the integrity is destroyed “when anyone can do it”, the true value of journalism as a conductor of the truth is only achieved when it is shared by all.

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2 Comments

  1. So true. I am a former newspaper journalist/editor. Back in the day, we would never print what someone said without two other sources to verify – and NEVER use “an unnamed source.” It just wasn’t permitted and was considered shabby (unethical) journalism.

    The New York Times rarely prints a story without an unnamed source, which translates to “the reporter couldn’t find a source on the record and filled in the blanks with their own opinion.”

    Don’t get me wrong. I covered plenty of stories where the main source would not go on the record. This required me to go find two sources that would confirm (on the record) what I was told by the unnamed source. Apparently it is quicker and easier for reporters today to print a correction than do the work to get the story right in the first place.

    The use of sources and the philosophy that it is better to be “right” than “first” used to be taught in Journalism 101. It is elementary journalism, the foundation, the basics, the very principles of reporting — and it no longer exits.

  2. Pingback: links for 2009-06-14 | James Mitchell

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