Social media is a trap
The allure has fed journalism’s worst instincts and contributed to our trust gap
That’s a phrase I first learned from Len Downie, the legendary former executive editor of The Washington Post. I first heard him use it when, during my time as editor of washingtonpost.com, we were discussing his concerns about our impending launch of Washington Post Radio.
Len was worried about reporters going on air to discuss stories without any editing line of defense, hence the moniker “unedited journalism.”
I wasn’t as worried as Len, though, since the percentage of journalism that fell into that category in 2006 was de minimis, consisting of occasional TV and radio hits or the live chats we did with journalists on washingtonpost.com. At that time, a small fraction of a journalist’s output could be called “unedited.”
Soon after our conversation, however, that equation began to change, and change fast. Social media exploded, attracting journalists like moths to a light. Podcasts re-emerged from the scrap heap of digital history. Existing cable TV networks expanded their use of talking heads, while a number of new 24/7 news stations were launching. And, most depressingly, most of the editing layers that once existed in legacy media were swept away by mighty financial headwinds.
The result has been an explosion of journalistic output that now enters the world without the wise benefit of a second set of eyes.
To me, the end result has been a disaster for journalism. And while there are myriad reasons for this, social media has been the tip of the spear.
Sure, social can be fun. Magic frequently happens on Twitter. And who doesn’t feel good when they get thousands of likes and retweets?
But while we’ve been chasing that adulation and virality, social has been chipping away at the core of what journalism has spent decades building.
I know many journalists will disagree with this, and some will tell me so on Twitter, a few in less-than-flattering ways. This is actually part of the problem; Twitter has become too much of an echo chamber. The target audience of our journalistic utterances is supposed to be the public, not other journalists.
I’m far from an old stick in the mud. I’ve been working in digital journalism for 25 years and have spent most of my time trying new things and banging my head in frustration at the unwillingness of legacy media to recognize how much our world had changed.
But there are some core journalistic principles no amount of years trying to innovate will ever kill, and one of those is that we fail if our audience does not trust us. By any measure, the public’s opinion of us has dimmed dramatically since we were able to slip the surly bonds of editing and fly our own flags.
Here’s Gallup’s most recent trendline of Americans’ trust in media:
If we use 2006 as the start of the social media era — Twitter launched that March, and Facebook became available to all that September — there’s been a 6% loss of trust in media. That’s bad, but not catastrophic. But look at this breakdown by political party.
Republicans’ trust in media was already in decline before social media, but it’s halved since 2006. Democrats saw a significant drop-off in trust between 2006 and 2016 (though it has surged upward since). It’s easy to dismiss this as solely a Trump Bump (or Trump Slump, if you’re a Republican). But I think that slips too easily into today’s trend of oversimplifying just about everything — and makes it easier to dismiss social’s significant role in the degradation of trust in journalism.
Social media rewards partisanship and outrage, and for years, entire websites were built to monetize those emotions. That led to an increasing number of journalists who not only don’t hide their political positions, but seemingly refuse to entertain the fallibility of their ideas. One of the first lessons I learned in journalism is absolute certainty in your rightness is a weakness, not a strength. Not on Twitter, it seems.
A news organization used to speak with a singular voice communicated via an agreed-upon set of principles, with deep editing structures in place as lines of defense. Now, the net is gone, and many of those same organizations are serving a journalistic goulash comprised of the brands of their individual journalists. And, as in any stew, one bad ingredient can ruin the whole pot. This is why the Janet Cooke, Jack Kelley and Jayson Blair controversies remain among journalism’s most damaging. Irresponsible tweeting doesn’t rise to those levels, but the end result can be the same: journalists doing significant damage to the brand they represent.
The end result of this freedom has been a series of self-inflicted wounds that have relentlessly chipped away at the public trust we steadily maintained in a more structured environment. Day after day on social, journalists decry the unwillingness of Trump supporters to see the error of their ways without ever seeming to understand that their own actions are part of the reason for that stubbornness.
There’s some good news, though: A recent study done by Gallup and the Knight Foundation finds that local news – while dealing with its own Mrs. Lincoln problems – remains far more trusted than national news.
The Knight-Gallup report also had this especially interesting passage:
Democrats are more likely than Republicans to trust local news to perform their roles, but the gap is especially wide when it comes to getting the facts right. Although 51% of Americans do not perceive that their local news has become more biased in recent years, those who believe it has are more likely to see a shift toward liberal views. Critically, Americans who perceive a shift in the bias of local news coverage are about half as likely to trust local news as those who do not.
This is encouraging — for local news, at least — and presents an argument for local outlets not to go down the let’s-pick-a-side rabbit hole that social implicitly encourages.
Some will argue this argument is one from the past, and that, conversely, social media has freed journalists from its stodgy ways. To them, I’d ask this: How has that worked out for journalism so far? Beyond the overall decline in media trust, we now have a sitting president who not only insults and demeans journalists on a daily basis but got elected by running on that issue. While his rhetoric is embarrassing and dangerous, let’s not fool ourselves: Donald Trump didn’t make the public dislike the press; they already disliked us. He took advantage of blood that was already in the water. And, insanely, via social media, we keep dumping chum in the water day after day like Roy Scheider in “Jaws.”
Another interesting read in lieu of social media’s challenges are the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Read these completely sensible guidelines and ask yourself how possible they are a social-media crazed world. There are many more guidelines behind the link, but here a few that are particularly challenged by the 24/7/365 challenge of having to be interesting on social:
- Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
- Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
- Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
- Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
- Label advocacy and commentary.
- Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
Twitter’s speed and format makes many of these tasks close to impossible. How can one not oversimplify or provide context when they only have 280 characters? As for labeling commentary and verifying information before sharing (i.e. retweeting), or not letting speed impact accuracy, a simple LOL will suffice there.
That said, there are SPJ guidelines I’d argue social has helped with:
- Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.
- Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.
Those advances are huge in an industry that’s always talked a better diversity game than it’s played.
And that’s the point: No one is saying social media is all bad for journalism. It’s opened all sorts of opportunities to build relationships with an audience that is increasingly financially supporting us. It’s allowed journalists to expose humanity beyond their bylines. It can be a fast path to reach newsmakers. All of this requires a tricky balance. But look what smart journalists have been able to do with Twitter: The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold has provided a master class on using it to help produce Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism.
Twitter is fed by passion, and staying out of trouble requires discipline, and I worry not enough journalists are blessed with that trait. We can be emotional, opinionated, defensive, holier-than-thou and just plain ornery. That’s why we have always had editors: to sift those characteristics out of our work.
With those lines of defense in continuing retreat, I fear we'll continue to fall victim to our worst instincts.