Pressure from social media causes news organizations to slip

Social media and blogging have opened the doors offering almost instantaneous access to world news and events in real time.

socialmediaThe average Joe on the street can now upload videos to YouTube directly from a phone, Tweet photos and post firsthand accounts on Facebook faster than most reputable news sources can make it to the scene of an event. All of that evidence and all of those accounts were once utilized by news agencies to tell a story, painting a picture provided by both witnesses and authorities. However, now, everyday people can send their own stories to the masses without the aid of media outlets.

The Osama bin Laden raid and his death broke on Twitter, along with Whitney Houston’s death, the announcement of the royal wedding and the Hudson River plane crash. pulled information from news sources and research outlets to find that about 50 percent of people hear about breaking news from social media, not news outlets.

While people, including myself, were fiercely searching Twitter hashtags and YouTube videos for information about the bombings on April 15, news organizations were struggling to keep up with the amount of information that was free flowing with reckless abandon from the public.

That sometimes pushes news organizations to be sloppy in their efforts to be first and fastest.

Take for instance CNN, thought of as one of the more credible 24-hour news sources available in broadcast, online and social media avenues.

At 1:40 p.m. CT on April 15, in the aftermath of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, CNN exclusively (if there is such a thing anymore) reported that police had a suspect in mind. A mere six minutes later, CNN reported authorities had arrested a suspect in connection with the crime. Fox News and the Associated Press were shortly behind CNN in the announcement.

Wow! That’s great! I didn’t see THAT on a blog or tweet anywhere prior to the announcement.

The problem? As we all know now, the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were on the run until Thursday night and Friday night when one suspect died after a shootout and being run over by his brother, and the other being taken alive after a homeowner found bloody evidence the suspect was hiding in a boat in the backyard.

On April 15, even with the CNN announcement, CBS and NBC hung back, insisting that their sources said no arrest had been made.

An hour after CNN’s rush to let the world know the bad guy had been caught, they retracted the statement, noting that they believed the information to be true based on both state and federal sources. The FBI issued a statement that “contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made,” noting that the past few days has seen “a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate.”

And this isn’t the first time in recent events that, in an effort to be first, the media outlets got it wrong. The New York Post reported 12 people were dead in Boston after the bombings, even though authorities were reporting two, at that time. Think back to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut when the shooter’s brother was first identified as the suspect police were looking for. And CNN and Fox both reported (CNN later offered apologies) that the Supreme Court had struck down President Barack Obama’s healthcare mandate, although the court had actual upheld it.

Is this just what we can expect from a world where consumers demand immediate information during a 24-hour news cycle?

Paul Levinson is a journalism professor at Fordham University and said he believes errors are a result of the demand for continuous news. “The public wants to be informed, and the price of being continually informed is that wrong information comes out,” Levinson said.

While that might not be a cause for concern for people craving the latest news, it is a cause for concern when it comes to credibility of trusted news sources. What makes news outlets different from blogs and social media is that the journalists who work there remember their ethical and legal obligations, as well as their training to check and double check facts and accounts.

downarrowPublic Policy Polling rates the credibility of news sources each year and it’s no surprise that 24-hour network ratings are declining. Fox News took the biggest hit at a nine percent drop. CBS, ABC, MSNBC and CNN saw percentage decreases. (Interestingly, but not necessarily relevant to this discussion, Fox News was also recognized as both the most trusted and least trusted news source by the 800 people who took part in the telephone survey.)

Why the drop? People have found other ways to get news. That means A) they are not as accepting or trusting of big outlets and B) outlets are struggling to keep up with information disseminated in non-traditional ways.

About 31 percent of adults now have a tablet and 45 percent of adults are smartphone owners. That’s a large percentage of the population who craves immediate open-source news. Accessing news is one of the most popular uses for those products, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. A little more than 60 percent of tablet owners say they get their news on devices on a weekly basis and close to 40 percent say they do so on a daily basis.

iphonecartoonAlso on smartphones and tablets are social media applications, used more by consumers than news apps. Seventy percent of a Facebook users newsfeed is dominated by friends and family. That number is 36 percent on Twitter. The odds are against news organizations when it comes to news consumption and the pressure is on to stay relevant.

“In the Twitter age, the pressure is worse than ever to be fast — it’s become more difficult,” said Greg Brock, senior editor for New York Times standards. “Some of the pressure is coming from readers. If they see a headline on a Web site, they start looking for a complete and fully reported story from us, and they protest if they don’t find it.”

It’s important for credentialed journalists to remember what sets them aside from citizen journalists – that’s reputation and credibility. While anyone can pass along information, it is up to media outlets to vet that information, supplement it with facts and make sure to present the news in a fair way. Perhaps in this new age of technology, journalists need to slow down and remember that while gossip and unconfirmed information can fly around swiftly, it is a media outlet’s job to take a step back and make sure journalists work with integrity. It is then that news outlets will stay relevant – not by beating social media users in a time game, but with facts and credibility, providing a service that other sources cannot. It’s time to embrace accuracy over speed.


Posted on April 20, 2013, in Journalism, New Media, Social Media, Strategic Communications, Technology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Good post. The wave of false reports after Katrina comes to mind reading this, for example

  1. Pingback: Always something surprising | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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