Today, we live in a world with a vast amount of potential news resources. While the number of avenues for consuming news media continues to grow, many individuals appear to be losing trust in so-called “traditional" media outlets, especially when looking for credible news. In a sign of changing times, a recent Gallup survey reported that Americans are increasingly frustrated with the quality of television news — once a mainstay of everyday life — with a record low of only 21% feeling “great confidence” towards the medium.
Research shows that we are increasingly looking to each other for news, through the use of social media. This is particularly true among people under the age of 25, who turn to social media hubs like Facebook and Twitter as a primary resource. In fact, a 2012 report found that more than half of all Americans have seen breaking news through social media before they hear or read about it via traditional news outlets.
This information is not exactly surprising. Social media tools do a great job of actively bringing information to the user, instead of viewers having to search for relevant news or passively awaiting it to be disseminated. Facebook allows you to access news apps that share updates based on location, popular topics, your interests and even what your friends are reading. With the use of a “hashtag,” Twitter users are able to track trending news topics throughout the world in real-time. Twitter even took it one step further with the release of “tailored trends” in June, which provide news that is more relevant to individual users and their interests.
Social media not only makes news easily accessible, but it also makes it fast. Recent events have shown us that such rapid delivery has the potential to be damaging, such as the infamous example of CNN and Fox News incorrectly reporting the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act. In a race to be the first to report on the decision, the two networks incorrectly reported that the individual mandate had been struck down after skimming the Court’s decision summary, which mentioned the mandate “could not be sustained” under the Commerce Clause. In their desire to be first, they overlooked the final conclusion of the summary, which ultimately upheld the mandate.
Compounding their error was the fact that they had developed such fine-tuned social media machines that by the time they caught the errors — as covered extensively by SCOTUSblog, which did a post-mortem on how the TV giants failed–they had already been transmitting the news online in a manner guaranteed to spread more virally than a traditional TV broadcast. In hindsight, the rush to be first, and to do so in a manner optimized by the use of social media, created exponentially greater amounts of confusion and uncertainty than would have been possible before social media allowed every American to be both a creator and transmitter of news.
While social media has shown great potential as a breaking news source and a trend-setter for news, the policies and norms governing social media use still need work to ensure maximal credibility. A recent Pew Research Center news media report said that social media is still a relatively small driver for news, and it has not been overwhelming, yet. But this study, along with many others, does show that this trend is certainly becoming relevant. In today’s society, speed is king, but in a society where everyone wants to know, and they want to know it now, one must be careful not to sacrifice accuracy. In the long run, valuing speed over accuracy on social media, free from the confines of “facts” and “sources,” will cause these tools to be viewed as trivial sources of information, ruining the promise that they have shown in democratizing the flow of true news around the world.
There must be some amount of precaution when posting to social media outlets, especially since this content consists of quickly digestible and easily accessible bits of information. Some basic tips can help in ensuring accountability, while still retaining speed and convenience. When posting to social media, reporters and news outlets should provide a link to the full article, to guarantee that the small bit comes from an actual written piece. They can provide simple and pure verification, either from an expert or direct source. If the news is “breaking,” a reporter or news outlet could simply offer a recommendation to “read further,” “check back for more” or even “view another source” so as to not engrain their word as fact. And most importantly, anyone seeking to promulgate news over social media must take the time to separate fact from fiction before sharing it with their audiences.
The social media giants are even becoming aware of this trend and are actually providing their own advice to help ensure reliability. An example of this can be seen Twitter’s recent launch of their “Twitter for Newsrooms” media guide.
As our technologies progress, natural changes in the way information is shared is to be expected, but it is important not to sacrifice what is truly important: information that is correct and reliable. Credible sources are not always the fastest; they are the ones that are right.
Brian Wagner is a senior manager at Gibraltar Associates. Patrick Moan is a senior at Pepperdine who recently completed an internship at Gibraltar.
This article is cross-posted on Gibraltar Associates' in-house blog.