Every day there are ethical decisions that impact the hundreds or thousands of people who watch, read, listen, and/or click on a media source. The foundation for making the right decision starts with ethics classes in college. Students in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism will use this blog to reflect on ethical questions in the media today.
Sunday, November 15, 2015
Finding Credibility Among Crying Wolves
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
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:
And here’s a response to that tweet, which exemplifies this
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
One of the five journalists, who spoke about the experiment
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