Saturday, March 29, 2014

Are social media sites valid news sources?

Where do you get your news from these days? By reading the newspaper? Watching TV? Logging on to social media sites?

Image via Social Media Today
The way we get news is changing and if you’re under 30, you likely get most of your news from sites like Facebook, as many users are turning away from traditional outlets for obtaining news, such as television and newspapers.

These days, one-third of young adults under 30 get news from social networks, while “34 percent watch TV news and just 13 percent read print or digital newspaper content,” according to a 2012 Pew Research survey. Roughly two-thirds (64 percent) of U.S. adults use Facebook and half of the site’s users get news there. This accounts for about 30 percent of the general U.S. population, according to a 2013 Pew Research study. Half of Twitter’s users also get news on the site while other social networking sites like Reddit are also driving the demand for news, with 62 percent of users getting updates there.

With the explosion of social media sites, we are connected to the world with immediate news access 24/7. When breaking news happens, we often get updates from our mobile phones and flock to sites such as Facebook or Twitter for more information. Clearly, social media is altering the landscape for how we get our news. However, one question remains: can social media sites be trusted as valid news sources?

The immediate nature of social media sites such as Twitter allows for journalists to rapidly break news minutes after it happens. However, fast news isn’t always accurate. Nearly 50 percent of news consumers have received “breaking news” via social media, only to find out later it was erroneously reported. One recent case involved CNN in April 2013, after the Boston Bombing. Citing anonymous sources, CNN rushed to break the news and as a result made the erroneous mistake of reporting that a “dark-skinned male” suspect had been identified and arrested.

In the Internet age, the demand from the public for details on breaking news stories puts pressure on news outlets. The Society for Professional Journalists code of Ethics states to “seek the truth and report it.” However, in the rush to publish breaking news stories on social media, seeking the truth first sometimes falls to the wayside. Therefore, the ultimate dilemma facing reporters is the speed with which stories are broke versus the accuracy of the story being reported on. Therefore, while journalists must report breaking news as quickly as possible, they must also exercise caution in dealing with sources for news as well as moving rapidly to correct errors in reporting.

Ultimately, the main problem isn’t the social media site itself--it’s the news being reported. Social media can be a reliable tool for news, even breaking news. When a major news event happens, people turn to social sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to post photos, updates, information and have discussions, which form a diverse and collective pool of sources and information from around the world. With this vast supply of sources, it becomes easier to debunk false information about a story as well as providing an avenue to obtain new information.

There are also advantages to the immediacy of breaking news stories on social media. As quickly as information is posted online, errors can just as quickly be corrected when facts are confirmed. A large number of people on sites such as Reddit and Twitter provide platforms for crowd-sourced fact checking, such as when Redditors fact-checked fake Wikipedia entries, debunking one hoax in just over an hour. This means with more people fact checking, there is a greater chance for fewer mistakes. 

Users are also able to get all their news in one place. Gone are the days of TV channel hopping for news. Now, you can follow a diverse array of news outlets such as cable news networks, traditional news sources, independent news, “citizen” journalists and more, commercial-free.

Social media is also changing the way journalists find news stories. Reporters turn to social sites such as Reddit to find story leads. In addition to being a platform for discovering leads for stories and crowd-sourced fact checking, Reddit may also be changing the way people “get” their news. In February, the site announced that it is beta testing a new “live reporting” feature that allows users to create and update live blogs about breaking news events such as the uprising in Ukraine or the war in Syria. 

Although users of social media sites have contributed to the spread of hoaxes and erroneous news in the past, the overall contributions these sites have made to the news world have positively strengthened the news-reporting process, demonstrating that journalism can be even better when more people are involved.

This was originally posted to the Eagle Strategies blog.

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