The news industry has been completely transformed in recent years. During the broadcast era, the mass-production of news content was dominated by large organistions with their own agenda, and often a political bias that matched that of their proprietor. Their work was widely distributed and for the most part, the role of the public was to simply consume. It was a unilateral relationship between the producers and consumers, with little opportunity for debate or interaction. At this time, the mainstream media were regarded as the expert voice, the only ones with the adequate resources for research and broadcast.
The development of digital technologies has transformed the dominant broadcast model, and has created a more complex media ecology. Technological developments have led to a rise of individual broadcasting and production, and therefore a massive empowerment of the individual. The wider public is now more engaged with journalistic output, as they are no longer merely consumers.
We now live in a world of real-time news where a professional platform is no longer required to collect information and shape the content of journalism (Anderson, Downie, Schudson, 2016, p.101). “News has become a 24-hour process” (Quinn & Lamble, 2012, p.8), anything can be a news story, even stories in third-world countries can be brought to the attention of the world thanks to social media.
When US Airways Flight 1549 famously landed in the Hudson River on the 15th of January 2009, Janis Krums (Krums, 2009), a self-proclaimed entrepreneur, tweeted; “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.” Major media outlets then caught on to the incident and proceeded to provide wall-to-wall coverage. This is a prime example of how anyone with the appropriate tools in this interconnected world can break major news stories like a qualified journalist.
The internet is where people are now most likely to learn of a developing story. Due to its instantaneous nature, Twitter is where news is usually first broadcast. A 2015 article found that journalists are the “largest, most active verified group on Twitter”, making up for 24.6% of the service’s accredited users (Mullin, 2015). Pictures and live video feeds on both Twitter and Facebook provide indisputable visual evidence of an event. Unlike Twitter, Facebook is not widely perceived as a platform for journalistic participation, as it is deemed “too social” (Bull, 2015, p.106). An increasing number of media outlets are experimenting with Snapchat to try to engage with a younger demographic but it is clear that social media, Twitter in particular, has impacted the accuracy of journalistic output in both a positive and negative manner.
The drive to be first to break a story has a negative effect on the accurate reporting of news because, in the rush to report reliable sources and accreditation formalities are ignored (Jones, 2017, 18). While this rush may lead to short-term inaccuracy, it is understandable that certain organisation and/or journalists would look to publish hastily and broadcast the relevant links on social media. According to Statista (Statista, 2018), there were 2.46 billion worldwide social media users in 2017, and the aim is that the dramatic headline and the desire of the consumes will re-direct users towards the host site, where corporations can better profit from the advertisement revenue.
Advertisement revenue is essential for media outlets, as the circulation of national daily titles in the digital age has plummeted. Sales stood at 9.2 million in January-June 2010 and dropped to six million by July-December 2016 (Ofcom, 2017, p.27). Revenues from print advertising fell by between 15 and 20 percent in 2016, following a 15 percent fall in 2015 (Bond, 2016). The BBC is an outlier in this scenario, as it is financed by a TV license fee.
“Traditionally, journalism is said to distinguish fact from opinion. There is journalism of verification and the journalism of advocacy” (BBC, 2018). Due to the number of users on social media, journalism of advocacy – or sensationalist journalism – has become more apparent. This approach presents “stories in a way that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy” (Sensationalism, 2018). Tabloid outlets such as the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Star often broadcast less serious pieces of journalism, but when political pieces are broadcast they are often prejudiced and malicious. Pieces concerning current events tend to be simplistic: relationship speculation dominates entertainment news, and transfer gossip is rife within football reporting.
While there are concerns regarding the accountability and accuracy of sensationalist news outlets, there are similar concerns relating to citizen journalists. If these journalists are intent on growing their following and reputation, it makes sense to be reactive and broadcast verified information rather than mere speculation. They do not stand to benefit much with this method, as the mainstream media adopt a similar tactic and have a much wider reach, meaning the piece of the citizen journalist is likely to get lost in the crowd. The only way a citizen journalist can hope to increase their audience, reputation and revenue – if they so desire – is to be proactive and broadcast an analytical perspective on a piece of possibly inaccurate information, before the mainstream media.
To heighten their credibility in a highly competitive industry, journalists will produce a large volume of content and battle for exclusive pieces. They discover much of their information through social media, the internet and e-mail, so rarely leave the newsroom (Witschge & Nygren, 2009, p.43). It has long been thought that multitasking impairs cognitive control, so it is plausible that if journalists are producing multiple pieces of content the accuracy of their work would suffer as their individual performance dwindles (Gorlick, 2009). The speed and volume of information increases the potential of inaccuracy and this is likely to be more prevalent with respect to social media content.
Social media is mostly regarded as a place of opinion rather than truth. “Our fast-paced, information overloading world makes it far more likely that audiences will evaluate news media emotionally rather than critically” (Taslitz, 2012, p.4). We construct our own media experience, and if the perspective of an article does not match our own, we criticise and question the relevant producers. We will always refer to our preferred outlets to validate thoughts, claims and pieces of new information.
On a positive note, social media is a place where the accuracy of journalistic output can be questioned. It can bring attention to inaccuracies and hold journalists and/or corporations accountable. It makes little sense for mainstream media outlets such as the BBC, CNN, Sky and al-Jazeera to risk their reputation by broadcasting inaccurate information, be that on social media or on their own platforms.
Mainstream media outlets such as the BBC “have an implied contract with their audience” (BBC, 2018), something that is not necessarily true for sensationalist outlets and citizen journalists. The public does not want to be misled, they want to be able to trust. Broadcasting inaccurate information “is the quickest and surest way to undermine trust and reputation” (BBC, 2018). There is “nothing more crucial to a news organization than its reputation” (Hess, 1998), and the same is true for the individual journalists who work for these corporations.
News gathering is more transparent and global as a result of social media. The news provider has a multiplicity of sources and perspectives which can improve the accuracy and context of a piece, but the consumer can validate and substantiate these sources and perspectives for themselves (Brown, 2016, p.69). The global reach of social media also helps corporations and/or journalists with dissemination (Bakhurst, 2011).
Because of its instantaneous nature, journalistic output on social media can afford to be more inaccurate. There is an infinite amount of space to publish, and any inaccuracies can be quickly edited or updated (Bakhurst, 2011), the same cannot be said for traditional forms of news media.
When compared with traditional media, online journalism is more “contextualized, textured and multidimensional” (Pavlik, 2001, p.22). Rather than lacking in accuracy, a lack of context and detail is more problematic for journalistic output on social media. The restriction of characters on Twitter leads to precis, disjointed information and as previously mentioned, links to re-direct traffic. News is rarely contextualised on social media, the host site is where a user is more likely to find context and detail. Even with a large number of contributors, on such a broad platform a lack of diversity between reported news headlines is problematic and reliable content can be difficult to find and/or interpret.
“Citizen journalism now bleeds into mainstream journalism and vice versa” (Fenton, 2009, p.10). When professional and amateur journalists come together to work on a piece of news and share information, it is called “networked journalism”. (Jarvis, 2006). Networked journalism can also have both a positive and negative impact on the accuracy of output. It proved to be a problem during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, as speculation was rife, and this was fuelling discussion of the atrocity on social media, most notably on Twitter. In the hours following the horror, certain individuals proclaimed that “a Muslim, with shrapnel wounds was being guarded in hospital as a person of interest” and that “a Saudi Arabian national had been arrested” (Ricketts, 2013). Many media outlets incorporated these rumblings and were criticised for doing so, they ultimately learnt from this experience and are now more cautious when using social media as a source of news.
The recent hoax terror attack at Oxford Circus tube station, which prompted frantic scenes, is a positive example of how networked journalism has learned from the aforementioned incident. Initially, many individuals including Olly Murs and Greg Owen were adamant that London was under attack by a gunman, Murs tweeted; “Everyone get out of Selfridges now gun shots!! I’m inside”, while Owen was clearly petrified; “Guy with gun on Oxford Street near Oxford Circus I’m in the middle of it. Currently taking cover in French Connection” (Mendick, 2017). It was then discovered that there was no such gunman and that a fight had caused the panic. The original information broadcast on Twitter was partly accurate, people were indeed fearing for their lives but, thanks to the sources of the mainstream media, who were slow in their processing of the event, the fears were quashed before the panic escalated further.
Social media has not yet brought an end to the influence of major news corporations. Proprietary bias is still an issue and “traditional media organisations remain the dominant source of online news in the UK” (BBC, 2014), often pioneering ideas of form and content. However, it could be argued that social media has been able to highlight and counter-balance the inaccuracy and bias that occurred in newspapers (Harrison, 2017). A piece of news being inaccurate is not a new phenomenon, by definition, news means “newly received or noteworthy information” (News, 2018). News is complex, fluid and evolving, and journalistic output on social media illustrates this very point.
Social media is ‘word-of-mouth on steroids’. Perception, target audience and spectrum of opinion are all important when gauging the accuracy, or otherwise, of content on any internet platform. The path to accuracy may now be convoluted but it is at least possible to filter our social media exposure and to identify accurate reporting on social media by accessing multiple sources.