For many, Tom Brokaw represents the golden age of TV news. His deep sonorous voice and granite-faced appearance imbued news stories with credibility and gravitas. When Brokaw said it, we believed it.
CNN was born in this era and began to change the face of news. The First Gulf War was the news event that truly revolutionized news gathering and catapulted CNN past the big three networks and even caused the Pentagon to coin the phrase “The CNN effect” in reference to the effect live news coverage had on war and political situations.
The Phenomena of Social News
Today we are in the middle of another 24-hour news revolution. Social media seems to have taken the controlling reigns from traditional media and brought power to the people. The famous “Arab Spring” revolts spread worldwide in great part due to the creative and subversive use of social media to share information, facts, photos and video about the struggles. For most people around the world social media was the primary source of hard news about what was really happening on the ground in these places. At it’s inception few news organizations had “wingtips on the ground” in these locations and used social media just like everyone else to find out what was happening.
Every day fewer and fewer people get breaking news from a newspaper or even TV. CNN birthed the idea of the 24-hour news channel and sparked a sea change in the news business. Now in the era of 24-hour social media, with both professional and citizen journalists, more people than ever are turning to alternatives to traditional news media for their information. Some studies show that many people trust social media more than the traditional media sources. Unfortunately, using twitter or other social media as a primary source of news is problematic, as the information presented on these networks is unreliable at best, typically facing no fact checking and requiring no sources for verification. Social media engages, but needs informative messaging and corroboration in order to achieve credibility as a source of news.
A 2012 infographic (click for full image) by Schools.com illustrates this social news revolution.
This unique type of user-generated content (UGC) was radical and transformative. It is even blurring the lines between copyrighted content and repurposed content that is affecting copyright law. A recent study by the United Kingdoms Ofcom revealed some interesting changes in potential new copyright laws on UGC.
"The spread of UGC practice represents a profound shift in the relationship between the media, consumers and technology. The traditional, one-way producer-consumer contract has been complemented with a set of malleable, constantly shifting transactions in which the "end" user is now, potentially, just one node on a production-distribution-consumption cycle. At its best, UGC gives rise to vastly increased social and political participation and more widespread creative practice. But it comes with challenges too: it is profoundly disruptive to content and media incumbents and presents the public with significant dangers in terms of privacy and security"
But what the power of the people using social media started, CNN and the other commercial news organizations quickly co-opted. News media organizations leveraged the real time impact and ‘nowness’ of social media to turn large groups of protesters and resistance fighters into veritable citizen journalists. This was the aim of these resistance leaders as they realized that in order to gain true international support and force regime change they would need the big news media organizations to pick up the battle cry.
Do we really trust social media for news?
Still, traditional news media is far from dead as a news source or as a commercial venture. A study by NORC shows recent survey data:
"Nine out of 10 people watched some type of TV news in the previous week. Newspapers, including online editions, and radio news each reached more than half the country. Online-only news sources such as Yahoo! News and Buzzfeed reached nearly half as well ... People flit across the news landscape, depending on what they're seeking, the study found."
For better or for worse social media is now a solid part of the “news landscape” that we flit across in searching for relevant, timely and contextual news. Twitter is widely regarded as the place to hear about the latest breaking news before it reaches the rest of the internet let alone the news media.
Twitter is growing fastest outside of the US where it is an empowering real time news and information-sharing platform. For all of the famous non-news and hoaxes that the real time, non fact checked viral nature of social media enables the truth is that social media will continue as a reasonable source of breaking news and underreported facts. It does take some digging and corroboration though; so don’t believe every tweet or Facebook post you see.
Don’t believe everything you read on social media.
Social News: A real life example
To illustrate the power of social media in breaking news I had an astonishing experience being one of the news breakers using social media. On April 19, 2013 while living in El Salvador I finally gave up on trying to sleep and took to the Internet. It was late at night and as I perused Twitter I saw an intriguing post from a friend who lived near Boston. He mentioned that he had just heard a barrage of hundreds of gunshots and explosions right outside his apartment and a massive amount of police activity. Intrigued, I replied to him with questions and pressed for more information. Then another acquaintance in Boston reported similar events on Twitter. I started searching on Twitter, news sites and more to find out more information. People were reporting hundreds of bullets being fired, police everywhere and widespread panic. I found nothing on any news sites but found many more mentions on Twitter. I started following many of these people to get more information and having real time conversations.
The hunt was on.
I went to Reddit to see if there was other information available and found the latest news section where a few people were reporting similar things. I started posting the news I was hearing from Twitter friends to Reddit and vice versa. I had four to five windows open and was bouncing back and forth between sites. Due to pure luck I was one of the handful of people who were providing live breaking news on social media of the Boston Bombing suspects firefight in those dark hours of the early morning well before news media arrived.
"Shortly after midnight on April 19, a Watertown police officer identified the brothers in a Honda Civic and the stolen SUV, and a ferocious gunfight followed on the 100 block of Laurel St, between the brothers and police arriving at the scene. An estimated 200–300 rounds of ammunition were fired and at least one further bomb and several "crude grenades" were thrown."
It was several hours before CNN or other news organizations arrived to add their two cents. But for those first few hours it was a whirlwind of chaos and energy. I found myself combining 3-4 different reports by individuals on several social media networks into one semi-corroborated factoid and reporting it. News and facts were breaking fast and furious along with of course misinformation, lies and guesses. A few times I was retweeted by leading reporters and news agencies as I had managed to combine enough tidbits into a single statement. It was a hair raising and intensely exciting few hours for those of us consolidating the reports. I and many others felt like news journalists on the front lines of a breaking story of national importance.
As the big networks arrived on scene we increasingly turned to their twitter accounts and live streaming videos to confirm or deny other reports. And after those first few hours the tide swung to the established news media outlets and the social media driven citizen journalists faded to the background. I even began to use the news media reports of facts to counteract many of the rumors and guesses swirling around social media.
Throughout this extreme event it was clear that although we were the first to report and spread the story it was the traditional news media organizations that we all turned to in order to get the full facts and details on the story. Too much of social media ‘news’ is pure guessing and rumor spreading rather than fact based reporting or detailed analysis. That does not make it less valuable it just means you have to take it with a grain of salt and corroborate, double check and verify. Just like everything else you hear.
Here is a well done list of some reputable places to do your fact checking.
Timely, contextual and relevant
The news media has not been forced into irrelevance or obscurity by the rise of the citizen journalist on social media and “reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.” Despite the crassness and sheer lunacy of CNN’s recent 24 hours a day, months long “coverage” of the flight MH-370 disaster today’s news media organizations are far from irrelevant even if they do at times sink to the absurd.
With the overwhelming volume of user and company generated content piling up like the national debt some are finding that the glut of ‘news and information’ broadcast on social networks is becoming at best unmanageable and more and more uncredible. When the line between paid, promoted and personal is so muddied as to be indistinguishable many people are finding that often the more reputable news media and publishing sources offer a much more reliable source of news and facts. Whether it’s traditional news media outlets or new model news information sites the real news wants to be heard, seen and shared.
Mike Zammuto, President of Brand.com, gave me his take on how the glut of UCG is affecting branding and news. "How can modern brands build credibility and manage PR in the midst of so much unreliable user-generated ‘news’ content?", he asks. This, of course, is something that affects all companies looking to leverage inbound marketing and content to reach their audience. "Collaborate with credible writers and publishers, and release original and legitimate stories on trusted outlets," Zammuto explains.
And recently Google’s anti-spam master Matt Cutts had this brilliant gem that can guide all content marketers and social media marketers as well as the news media:
"The objective is not to make your links and articles APPEAR natural. The objective is for them to actually BE natural."
The rise of UCG, social media and the wide distribution of news sources is creating as many opportunities as challenges. It’s just a little harder to find the right balance. Most people today are snacking from a huge news and information buffet spread across traditional news hours, 24-hour news television, various websites, news sites, radio, newspapers, magazines, and social networks. Far from reducing news media’s authority this seems to actually improve it as information overload and conflicting facts conspire to confound us.
It turns out that more news is good news even for the news.
Note: Interesting addition is the news of Facebook's NewsWire Service launched this week.