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Journalism and Social Media

by on February 20, 2014

Modern news writing and reporting has dramatically changed since the “Age of Yellow Journalism” first occurred over a century ago. During the 1800s, people relied heavily on newspapers for their information. However, “yellow journalism” back then meant jaw dropping headlines to sell papers but very little in depth research to back it. [1]

Because of our modern technological advances and social networking popularity, at least in the United States, digging for information on a lede can be as easy as looking up a source on Facebook or Twitter. While there are always privacy settings to adjust who can view what on your profile, certain information remains public.

What if you were writing a local story for your campus newspaper on underage drinking? You get a lede on a story and your source directs you to someone’s Facebook page. A page which is private but shows photos of someone believed to be over 18 but not 21 with an alcoholic beverage in hand. Those pictures are publicly shown, given that person’s name and some caption about drinking. What do you do? Can you use the photo since it’s publicly being displayed? Given the context that you yourself did not take the photo, and for all you know this person could be holding the drink for the person taking the picture, ethically it makes more sense not to use it. But what if it was a status post by that individual instead of a picture?

It raises the question, is it ever okay to use someone’s publicly displayed social media information as a “tool ” for writing a story? When is it okay for journalists to rely on what they read on Twitter, Facebook or any other social media network as an aid in composing an article? There is an article by Geneva Overholser “What is Journalism’s Place in Social Media” that I read recently which addresses this very complex topic. [2]

In our modern, digital age, it is easier than ever to see the news by logging into Facebook and reading an article that someone has shared or posted. Yet how often do most people research the article they’ve read?

Another question is in regard to hard news ledes and entertainment news. Do the ethical waters of social networking as a means to research your story, begin to get murky as you make the transition from entertainment news to hard news such as assault or murder cases? Is it less ethical to rely on social media for hard hitting news?

[1]  http://www.examiner.com/article/a-brief-history-of-yellow-journalism

[2] http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=101882

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2 Comments
  1. I think you have posed an interesting question here, one that chapter four of our text spends quite a bit of time on. I think that the issue is the follow-up. Okay, so you find some dirt on social media. That, perhaps, is a starting point for some type of investigation (probable cause, let’s say.) Using the information found online, without further research would be a mistake, I believe. In your example you mention the photo of the underage person drinking. Without an interview, hearing their side, and discussing the photo and its contents, the image should not mean anything to the public, and should not be used alone by the media.

    In response to your last question, I think that the rule should remain consistent across the board. If the story being investigated is more on the grave side, social media can still be a starting point, but of course not the ONLY evidence. Like a text conversation or e-mail, the things people post online can be quite telling.

  2. scuzzarellam permalink

    Something that immediately comes to mind in regards to your post concerns recent newsworthy stories the largely concern young people. Examples might include the Steubenville rape case and the shooting of Trayvon Martin

    I remember in most of these cases images were taken from the public Facebook and social media profiles of these young people to paint a picture of who they were.

    In the case of Trayvon, images taken from his social media profiles were used by media sources to, in my opinion, create a Trayvon Martin that was more newsworthy.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/29/white-supremacist-trayvon-martin-email_n_1389584.html

    While I think using social media in research has its merits, I also think that there is a level of deception in using these semi-private photos and archives to create a story.

    I think to your point, using social media to create a story is alright, but it cannot be the only source. By focusing solely on Social Media, you would be recording a truly false image. I think it is largely established that who we are online can differ greatly from our actual character.

    As a journalist we must be prepared to go deeper and not allow one shaky source be enough to build a story.

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