Sunday, November 15, 2015

Finding Credibility Among Crying Wolves

Jordan Horrobin

There was a question brought up at the beginning of the year in our JOUR 3200 Ethics, Mass Media and Society class: Who can generate and spread news?

The answer is anyone with an internet-connected device and a social media account. That’s why in the recent racially-tense Twitter explosion regarding the University of Missouri, thousands of “citizen journalists” jumped online to give their say.

Twitter is an excellent example of an engine by which the public can exercise its right to the freedom of speech. But when a significant volume of conflicting information is spread, it leaves professional journalists in a bind.

As Brooke Gladstone said in her piece for the New York Times, the public’s trust in news media is “a sinking ship.” That’s because people want affirmation more so than accuracy and impartiality. This is a challenge, though, because steeply conflicted beliefs and pieces of information make it impossible for journalists to please everyone.

Instead, journalists must wade through various opinions (that, on Twitter, are often grammatically incorrect) and try their best to report what they believe is credible and newsworthy information.

On Twitter, journalists have the benefit of spreading their information instantly to a mass audience. The negative side of this, however, is that incorrect news can spread just as quickly, as alluded to in this tweet by Missouri’s Twitter account for on-campus alerts:

via Twitter

And here’s a response to that tweet, which exemplifies this issue:

via Twitter

Twitter is such a powerful and popular tool (the company itself claims 320 million monthly active users) that many people probably think they can get their news exclusively from the social media site.

This theory was put to the test by five journalists from French-speaking public radio stations, who spent five days gathering their news exclusively from Twitter (note: they were prohibited from following any news media accounts).

One of the five journalists, who spoke about the experiment in an article for NeimanReports, found that news on Twitter can steer off course easily. As an example, the journalist explained how one of the nights of this experiment there were a lot of tweets about a loud noise heard in Lille, France. Lots of ideas were thrown around on Twitter about the sound being an explosion, a fire or perhaps a nuclear problem. A news report (which of course the journalist didn’t access until after the experiment was over) reported that the noise was from an airplane breaking the sound barrier — an idea no one on Twitter had mentioned.

The journalist also identified that Twitter, like other social media sites, is made up of communities of people who are like-minded (i.e. same political views, race, sport team preferences). That means people are more likely to agree with the views/information of people from their communities than people outside their communities, even if their communities don't have factual information.

Despite the negative meaning of these findings, a Pew Research Center study found the majority of Twitter and Facebook users (63% apiece) believe those social media platforms serve as “source(s) for news about events and issues outside the realm of friends and family.” Those numbers have increased since 2013, when 52% of Twitter users and 47% of Facebook users believed that.

Many journalists have embraced social media sites like Twitter and use them to both break and aggregate news. Personally, I do my best to keep up with news as I see it on Twitter and I think it’s important to use because of how quickly information spreads on that and other social media sites.

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