Social media: you know you want to

What should we think about social media?

It seems there isn’t a conversation or discussion on journalism nowadays that ignores the presence of social media – rather, its rise and its dangers are being applied in all circumstances, not insignificant of which is politics, shown in Nic Newman’s text ‘#UKelection10, mainstream media and the role of the internet’. The paper analyses social media’s involvement in the 2010 UK elections down to each party, as well as their techniques, successes and shortcomings. With Barack Obama’s recent re-election as US president, the paper’s core conclusions are proving relevant again, and from my experience using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr during the US campaigns, Newman’s statement that “social and digital media increased political engagement .. particularly amongst the 18–24 group” is increasingly accurate, even with an election not taking place in young adults’ home country.

Newman’s 2009 text ‘The rise of social media and its impact on mainstream journalism’ describes how I perceive and engage with social media: “Social media, blogs and UGC are not replacing journalism, but they are creating an important extra layer of information and diverse opinion. Most people are still happy to rely on mainstream news organisations to sort fact from fiction and serve up a filtered view, but they are increasingly engaged by this information, particularly when recommended by friends or another trusted source.” As an active user of Tumblr and Twitter, I am reliant on those I follow to amplify news or feed me with perspectives to consider – for facts about the US election I still turned to mainstream news outlets, but to realise my alliance with certain candidates I took into account the personal testimonies of people on social networks. Newman’s paper explains a changing journalistic practice and predicts that over time, “social media sites could become as important as search engines as a driver of traffic and revenue” (it can even be argued that that time is now).

The ever-growing social network Twitter creates controversy with its unfiltered, cut-to-the-chase content, and as Newman recalls with the Telegraph’s live Twitter feed experiment – it can sometimes go south. Newman similarly talks about the importance of brand separation (using CNN and iReport as an example), the aim to protect journalistic organisations’ “reputation for trust and accuracy.” Alfred Hermida addresses the marriage of Twitter and journalism in his text ‘Twittering the news’, arguing that Twitter is an awareness system shifting journalistic norms, and that “microblogging systems that enable millions of people to communicate instantly, share and discuss events are an expression of collective intelligence”.

Despite all the resistance (Hermida: “New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (2009) described [Twitter] as ‘’a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls’'”) and danger that “social media technologies like Twitter are part of a range of Internet technologies enabling the disintermediation of news and undermining the gatekeeping function of journalists,” former journalist and now academic Charlie Beckett sums it up: “we’ve emerged out of that rather boring zero sum game and realised that it is inevitable and it is not a choice.” In Newman’s 2009 social media text, BBC Business Editor Robert Peston claimed he wouldn’t be moving on to Twitter any time soon, and yet now in 2012 his account @Peston has almost 200,000 followers.

I say it’s time to trust new media, and interlace journalistic practice with audience contribution not with a cloud of worry for our profession but with excitement over such a rich “supplementary dimension”.

Don’t worry guys, social media is FUN.

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User-generated trouble

What is the ‘citizen’ to the ‘journalist’?

John Kelly’s report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism called ‘Red Kayaks and Hidden Gold: the rise, challenges and value of citizen journalism’ raises several issues in determining the role of a journalist in a media environment pressured by reader demands and the influx of user-generated content (UGC), with audience involvement becoming a hot topic in the industry. The report defines ‘citizen journalism‘ as, in a fundamental sense, the “act of citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information.” If citizens then play an active role, this surely downplays the role of the journalist, who’s responsibilities are being shared – in Kelly’s report the weight of the journalist’s role is emphasised in saying the industry’s promise to tell the truth “elevates it in such a way that failing to live up to that standard can be especially damaging,” compared to other professions.

Now that we’ve established the importance of journalists, citizen journalism increasingly begs the question: what even is a journalist? Kelly’s report asks if it is now

“Anyone who creates something approaching journalism?”

The problem that sits with journalists is that the ‘approach’, the audience creating their own journalistic content, “has the potential to harm the established brand” or undermine journalistic values that working journalists have trained for. Personally, it is relatively easy to understand this sentiment; having studied the nuts and bolts of the title for almost 3 years now, I would pride myself on being able to determine quality content over someone who hasn’t had the training. Jane Singer’s chapterQuality Control: Perceived effects of user-generated content on newsroom norms, values and routines‘ in Journalism Practice focuses on this journalist insistence and belief in their role as gatekeeper, and that although citizen journalism can be a useful supplement it needs monitoring that newsrooms can’t afford.

Both texts take online growth, and the fact that publishing is easier than ever, into perspective – Singer writes: “arguably, if there are no gates, there is no need for anyone to tend them” while Kelly writes: “The media’s gatekeeper function was increasingly obsolete in a world where there suddenly were no fences.” How effective then is holding on to the gatekeeping responsibility? A point that caught my attention in Singer’s text was the comparison to the US and how “the contemporary technological and economic environments in which they work are similar.” Is rise of citizen journalism in mainstream US media (perhaps a result of less gatekeeping?) mirrored in the UK? I recall watching the New York Times documentary Page One last year and being impressed mostly by media reporter Brian Stelter, along with his enthusiasm for all things online, and the publication’s support of citizen journalism guided by their expertise. The New York Times has UGC-based The Local and Newsweek is going digital while the Guardian only discusses its citizen-involved future.

Whether the UK is on the same playing field as the US when it comes to citizen journalism, it is still a worrying presence to most that work in media, and culture blogger Daniel Montgomery puts it bluntly in a parallel situation: Would you entrust your teeth to a “citizen dentist,” or would you leave it to a professional?

Would you entrust your media to a “citizen journalist,” or would you leave it to a professional?

CHECK OUT: A New York Times video about citizen journalism in Iran