social media journalism

Journalism is not dead, not as long as you still want to know what is happening in your town, city, county, country, and world. Journalism has definitely changed, though.

It’s changed hands, from a few to the many, thanks to social media.

It’s changed in immediacy and how news is broken, thanks to social media.

But journalism still has a job to do, and content marketers who are on social media could learn a lot from the journalistic tradition.

3 Approaches To Social Media And Journalism

Just as bloggers can break the news, make the news, or change the news, social media can do the same. After all, it’s microblogging. In essence, there are three ways that social media can intersect with journalism.

1. Social Media As Journalism

Social media journalism is, at its core, micro journalism.

Social media has character limits, network limits–there will be no long-form muckraking happening here. But social media is also instant and social, meaning it doesn’t publish and die. It publishes, with hashtags and links, and it spreads and is discussed.

Nick Kristof’s live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid takes social media journalism to an almost sensational level. His tweets are the verbal equivalent of a cameraman tagging along on a police raid. Social media journalism certainly doesn’t require live tweeting, though that might be seen as a pure form of it. Because social media can be created–words and images–and published through a mobile device, it is far more portable than lugging around a camera crew or a laptop to live blog an event.

“Regular” journalism can happen on social media, too. Not everything has to be live tweeting sensationalism. News sources are regularly reporting and updating the daily news stories to their feeds. To be honest, I get all of my local news and weather through Twitter and Facebook by subscribing to the feeds of local television stations and newspapers.

In other words, social media can be an extension of traditional journalistic providers.

2. Social Media Encourages Journalism

Social media can spur on journalism even when that social media isn’t the journalistic object itself. It can help encourage and keep journalism healthy in three ways.

a) A broader picture of people.

Social media is the collection of people’s lives, and that’s exactly what makes up news stories. Why wouldn’t journalists turn to the social accounts of newsmakers? Lawyers are turning to it for divorce proceedings.

It makes sense to look at social media to add a human depth or an important layer to a story that is otherwise missing those key ingredients. It is far too easy for reporters to decide ahead of time what the story will be, and provide coverage that fits with that narrative. Social media can sometimes be a myth debunker, giving us a broader picture of the people involved in the story. While it might not change facts, it is a portrait of all involved that we couldn’t possibly have seen years ago.

Social media can provide journalists with access to people and stories they might never have discovered otherwise.

b) Faster news, more news.

Social media sends that news carrier pigeon out faster than any other source, as was seen with the announcement of Michael Jackson’s death. You probably didn’t see that news on a major network or news source first; it spread online through social media. The first blog post and tweets went out as the coroner made the announcement. Think of it: any citizen at a public event sending out tweets on her phone can break the story.

I have seen private citizens (who maybe have more time to kill than I do) attending various meetings live tweeting the proceedings with no traditional media organization anywhere to be found. First camera on a disaster scene? Probably the one in your pocket, the one on your phone.

Want to use Click to Tweet on your blog?

c) Fact checking.

Social media is a conversation, and when journalists are using it to share their stories, they open themselves up to conversations about what they are reporting, what they are seeing, and even what they are assuming.

True, maybe there are times when journalists don’t care much for this aspect, but the public (minus the trolls) can benefit from their immediate access to the conversation, or their ability to add to the discussion with their own information and fact-checking abilities. At the very least, it can alert a journalist to important information they were not aware of.

3. Social Media Hampers Journalism

Social media, despite its strengths of breaking the news and portability, has a few negative effects on good journalism.

a) Accuracy and verification.

In a survey of editors and journalists, research Jennifer Alejandro discovered that while 83% of editors considered the speed and immediacy of social media to be part of its strengths in getting the news out and bringing people back to their sites, they were also concerned about accuracy, verification, and a loss of control over the information.

While I don’t mourn the loss of control over information (and, hence, the loss of spin of the message), the first two concerns–accuracy and verification–are troublesome. A 2011 research paper by Nicola Bruno, entitled “Tweet First, Verify Later?” described this “rough draft” approach to breaking news (and history), noting that it was:

“…eroding the journalistic standards of the reliability and verification of the news. The various interviews and analysis gathered in this research paper illustrates how… The Guardian and CNN chose speed versus verification for spreading their information. The “tweet first, verify later” approach is a great help for source diversification and leads to richer coverage. But this strategy also seems very dangerous for one of journalism’s golden rules: each news story must be verified first.”

How often has a something trended on social media during a breaking news story only to be found inaccurate later on? Essentially, everyone is a citizen journalist, breaking free from some of the stalwarts of what good journalism was thought to be. What does this new ecosystem of journalism look like?

According to blogger Stacy Higginbotham, it starts with “the rumors, the news break, the confirmation, then the jokes and spinoff Twitter accounts (@OsamainHell, etc.) and so on.”

Social media is fast. It can also be inaccurate and fast. That’s dangerous.

b) Creating niche soundbite attention spans.

It’s easy to style a social media feed to fit your specific tastes, thereby creating a news feed that shares and creates only the news you want to hear.

If you want to keep your sanity, you have to be careful about who you follow, that much is true. But when it comes to news, that wise policy can turn on you. You can more easily create a myopic view of the news on social media than anywhere else, following and reading only the news you want to hear.

People are much more able to surround themselves with stories that essentially corroborate whatever worldview they are already happen to hold. – Jamie Bartlett, Center for the Analysis of Social MediaClick To Tweet

c) Creating distractions for journalists.

Your event, product launch, or idea may be the greatest thing ever in the history of the world, but distracting reporters with press releases and PR materials doesn’t endear you to them. They have a job to do, and anything you do that gets in the way of it isn’t appreciated.

This isn’t to say that all PR is bad.

On the contrary, I appreciated a well-written press release when I was a reporter. There were slow news days, to be sure, and we weren’t always aware of all of the events going on that our readers might appreciate. The problem arises when you constantly flood the newsroom with press releases, follow-up contact, and continued offers to provide more information even when you’ve been told it isn’t necessary.

Respect the time and work of journalists. Write press releases of high quality that require no editing, and follow the inverted pyramid so they can easily edit your copy to fit. Let them know you’re available for follow-up, but don’t harass. Make the perfect pitch, and save everyone a lot of headache. Ask the publisher what they want.

Journalism Rules That Work On Social Media

A different medium doesn’t mean a different set of rules entirely. The basics of journalism still apply to how you use social media as part of your content marketing plan. You are still presenting the facts and answering the questions your audience is going to want to know about. There are a two kinds of journalism rules:

  1. The nuts and bolts of getting content out to readers.
  2. The philosophy and foundation of the craft.

We’re going to pursue #2 in this post. We’ve talked a fair amount about the act of journalism in other posts. So, using some of the ideals from the Pew Research Journalism Project as our basis, we’ll talk about how the philosophy of journalism applies to social media.

1. Journalism must tell the truth.

Truth is tricky.

Truth is corrupted by devious or ill-informed sources. Truth is destroyed by the journalist’s own assumptions or past experiences. Truth is forgotten when laziness wins out over diligence. Truth is misconstrued without the benefit of hindsight.

Journalism attempts to nab truth not slavish devotion to a grander philosophical truth (which would color individual stories untruthfully in order that the bigger truth might be served), but by the truth in the specific story. In other words, just the facts, ma’am. Skip the personal interpretation. Your basic who, what, when, why, where, how questions (though be careful with the “why”, which is often subjective).

Your social media must be truthful.

It’s true that your brand’s social media might not be breaking news about a war or an important election, but you still have an obligation to tell the truth. No tricks. No sketchy hidden links. No false promises. No overblown or exaggerated headlines that don’t deliver.

Whatever you say and do in your social media content must be true. It is not OK to sacrifice truth and call it a growth hack or clever marketing. Powerful copy is hard, and it tells the truth. Easy copy makes for easy lies.

2. The first loyalty is to the reader.

This journalistic principle has struggled to survive the ever increasing pressure of advertisers, but the idea is that the news must go on because the reader needs to know. It doesn’t matter if the negative story is about your top advertiser–if it matters to the reader, it must be told.

This sounds impossible, in terms of social media applications. You’re a brand, a company–obviously you have an obligation to who you are creating your content for. But there’s another aspect to being loyal to your audience: your content should reflect all of your audience.

When you ignore certain audience segments, intentional or not, you disenfranchise them. You wordlessly dismiss them and give them no part of the conversation. You give them permission to walk away.

Make sure your social media is relevant, on a regular basis, to all members of your audience.

Trust, but verify. – Russian proverbClick To Tweet

3. Everything must be verified.

In some sense, this is the cornerstone of journalism, and of truth.

As a reader, you assume, when you read the news, that it has been verified by someone somewhere. We trust reputable news sources more than other kinds of sources based on that assumption. Surely someone on their team is fact-checking; they didn’t just make this stuff up.

In blogging, you must link to any research you use to support your blog. In social media, you don’t have the same flexibility to include lots of links and references, so you must use what is at your disposal. If you decide to publish and verify later, you’re going to want to let your audience know.

  • Tag. Tweeting some breaking news or a live event? Why not add a hashtag (#unverified) to let your followers know it isn’t verified yet?
  • Reference. Always reference user accounts of those mentioned so others can follow up with them if necessary.
  • Consolidate. Use Storify or other social aggregation services to collect all of your content in one place, making it easier for readers to see the whole picture, start to finish, instead of a snippet in your feed.

Don’t embrace unverified content just to get the clicks and traffic. Rumors and inaccurate information spread fast enough without you helping it along. As you create content, double-check that infographic before share and promoting it. See if the research really does say that. Verify the content of others before you share or build on it for your own audience.

So trust, but verify.

4. It must provide a place for public criticism and compromise.

Journalism is often the spark for debate and change, and having a place for public criticism and compromise plays a big part in this changing conversation.

Social media, by its nature, has this built-in.

While journalism has had to work and adjust to allow for this in the online landscape, social media grew out of the idea of conversation. The addendum to that is that you must be able to manage the criticism that you receive on social media, and manage the kinds of comments that troublemakers leave that could hurt or offend your audience.

5. It must make the significant interesting and relevant.

Journalism must provide the stories that readers want, but they must also provide the stories readers don’t know they want.

It’s a difficult balance, particularly when you need to sell newspapers. Sensationalism is a better sell than the plodding and important news of economies and governments. Molehills made into mountains, while mountains are made into molehills. Sometimes the insignificant is made to seem more important because it is blown out of proportion.

Social media is particularly guilty of messing this up.

Does your social media content forgo useful content for click bait content? Are your headlines grandiose but hollow? It’s easy to make kitten photos interesting and foolishly relevant, but are you patronizing your readers just to get clicks? A bit of click bait once in a while might not hurt, but you don’t want to build your content marketing empire on it. Your audience is quickly burned out. They can only take so many headlines that end in “…and you won’t believe what happened next!”

Remember to help your audience even if they just want to look at kitten videos. Help them help themselves by being interesting and relevant at the same time. That’s hard work.

You can’t control what your fans do with social media, but your own output can follow the best guidelines possible. Social media can learn a lot from journalism…but the reverse is also true. Journalism can also learn from those using social media and content marketing.

How can social media better mimic the strong philosophy that traditional journalism was based on? Or is this impossible once the control is given to the people?