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Breaking News and Social Media: Stop Fighting It

Social media and journalism are back in the ring this week. They’re both pretty strong contenders, but not without their weaknesses. In the immortal words of Paulie Pennino, let’s blow these punch-outs.

In this corner: Journalism

As the underdogs trying to maintain a presence and a living wage, we all know journalists have the power of story-telling and, hopefully, credibility, when news breaks. This Nieman Lab post illustrates the timeline of breaking the Boston bombing on Monday. It shows social media users were able to catch events up to the minute, but it’s only when Reuters retweets it that it becomes News.  

That’s all because of context. Journalism takes its hardest blows when it forgets that its mission is to provide context. To keep up with social media, journos have fallen prey to the allure of being first. Cable news outlets broadcast, and then tweeted, information about the ongoing investigation and hunt for the bomber without verifying information. Instead of relying on their credibility, their only other strength, media outlets engaged in a strange feedback loop citing each other, updating homepages and official tweets in a dizzy little dance. 

No shortage of adrenaline, but certainly a shortage of facts. 

And in this corner: Social Media

In the midst of breaking, or not-quite breaking, news, social media was aflutter with corrections. 

Social media is now the watchdog of the fourth estate. If it weren’t for social media, no one would have realized until it was too late how silly some of the reports coming in from mainstream media outlets were. 

Luckily, most of those voices on social media were journalists. It’s not the best reporting tool, but it is a great branding tool. We’ve established that journalists need to practice journalism whether they’re being paid by an organization or not. This is how you do it. Media companies forget that their brand is not about being first to report, but reporting well. Social media as we know it today will change when, or if, Twitter goes public and doesn’t work out the advertising model just right. There’ll be another way, but if you or your newsroom has a social-based strategy for survival, it may need some tweaking. 

And social communities are not just working against journalists, they’re also trying their hand at criminal investigations. I’d like to be the kind of person who believes Reddit users can save the world, but so far, the crowd sourcing of crime solving only seems like dangerous territory. More harm than good will come of it. Like good, watchdog journalism, it takes professionals. 

And the winner is…

Information. Of course it’s a fallacy to pit journalism and social media against each other. They work together. Not always well, but if it weren’t for both entities, neither one of them would be surviving right now. In the midst of the fight, it’s hard to remember that we’re in the middle of a watershed moment for both industries. This week, awash with bombings and filibusters, the kinks in the system were brought to center-ring. It’s on the slower news days when everything works well. And that’s something to remember. Information spreads more quickly than it used to but, as I’m sure CNN or even Boston.com learned this week, that doesn’t mean it has to. 

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