Including social media posts within news stories is de rigueur these days, even at the highest levels of journalism. Whether they are eyewitness accounts of breaking events, critiques or opinions on presidential campaigns or even updates and corrections to previous posts, social media commentary has become a normal part of online news. Social media platforms have recognized the trend, and are using news as a way to keep users tethered to their sites.
Twitter’s new Moments for example, collects tweets about a specific event, such as a breaking news story or Hollywood award show, and posts the collected tweets into users’ feeds. In recent years, news summarizing apps including Summly and Wavii have been snapped up by Yahoo, Google and the like. The idea is that users can stay on the platforms and be informed and engaged without having to look elsewhere.
Some experts suggest this may be the future of journalism, with curated tweets, Vines, and status updates replacing professionally reported and edited news. That would make it easier for brands to generate news stories, and also eliminate the necessity of building relationships with journalists.
You can’t make money and you can’t stay in business by only talking to dumb guys on the street.
But don’t throw out the Rolodex just yet, said Jim O’Rourke, professor of management at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Real news reporting – the sort that consumers trust – takes training and professionalism. “You can’t make money and you can’t stay in business by only talking to dumb guys on the street, and that’s essentially what you have with social media,” he said. “By that I mean someone who has absolutely no idea what’s going on, but wants to be part of the conversation.”
Social media reporting had highs and lows during the November attacks in Paris. Facebook’s safety check allowed Parisians to quickly notify friends and family that they were safe. Twitter users tweeted “#porteouverte” to help those stranded find shelter. But along with the glory, there was plenty of ignominy. Altered or faked photos claiming to identify the terrorists went viral. A prankster who noted the lights of the Eiffel Tower had been turned off for the first time since 1889 saw his fake news post retweeted 30,000 times, and picked up by some media outlets, in about 24 hours.
Newsgathering and reporting requires both legal and business judgement. “If I run a newspaper, television station or magazine, I have nothing if I have no credibility,” O’Rourke said. “You get it by delivering the truth. By delivering insight.”
One of The New York Times’ most popular columns is the “Upshot,” a page launched online in 2014 that provides readers with analysis and historical context for news events. By focusing on why something happened and what it means – something social media platforms can’t do – the newspaper is adding value to its product and giving readers a reason to subscribe.
Social media platforms in general don’t charge admission. Rather, their profit model is based on datamining. “Slicing and reorganizing all that treasure trove of personal data to resell it to others who will use it for their commercial purposes,” O’Rourke said. “Social media platforms are not philanthropic. They are nor public service organizations. They are in business to make money.”
“Trying to cobble together a news report to make sense of a series of events requires some training.”
O’Rourke sees today’s social media playing the part of last century’s tip line. “A tip or a lead is nothing new,” O’Rourke said. “Trying to cobble together a news report to make sense of a series of events requires some training.”
In the past, a phone call or email to a newspaper tip line would be assigned to someone to check out. That’s no different, O’Rourke argues, from a tweet a reporter picks up that comments on a scuffle between an Illinois state trooper and a motorist. In fact, just that scenario played out recently in Chicago, where radio station WBBM AM saw the tweet and sent a helicopter to check out the ensuing traffic jam. The station picked up tweets, Facebook posts and a few cell phone photos and contacted posters to describe what was going on. “They did not depend entirely on the tipsters for the content of the news story or to make a determination of accuracy,” O’Rourke said. “It was just a lead.”
Broadcasters licensed by the FCC to operate “in the public interest, convenience and necessity,” that decide they no longer need reporters and can survive by putting ordinary citizens on the air, may be at considerable risk. “The first risk is to their credibility, O’Rourke said. “If they get it wrong, pretty soon no one will believe them.”
Additionally, if newspapers or broadcast stations turn “their airways over to people with biases and agendas, then people who disagree with that bias or agenda will abandon them,” he said. “News requires reliable sources. What makes reliable? That what they say is true.”