The news industry as a whole has been completely transformed in recent years. During the broadcast era, the mass-production of news content was dominated by large companies with their own agenda, and a political bias that matched that of their proprietor. Their work was widely distributed and for the most part, the role of the wider public was to simply consume. The monopolies were regarded as the expert voice, the only ones with the adequate resources for research and broadcast. It was a unilateral relationship between the producers and consumers, with little opportunity for debate or engagement.
The development of digital technologies and the subsequent modes of interaction transformed the dominant model, and has created a more complex media ecology. These 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 anyone with access to the right tools can be a journalist and play a significant role in shaping the content of journalism. “News has become a 24-hour process” (Quinn & Lamble, 2012, p.8) and a professional platform is no longer required to collect information and broadcast this information to the public (Anderson, Downie, Schudson, 2016, p.101). Anything can be a news story, minority voices from across the world can have their story told in this interconnected world.
This was evident when US Airways Flight 1549 famously landed in the Hudson River on the 15th of January 2009. Janis Krums (Krums, 2009), a 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.
The Internet is where you 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 pictorial, indisputable accuracy of an event. However, 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 are ignored and accreditation formalities ignored (Jones, 2017, 18). While this rush may lead to short-term inaccuracy, it makes sense that companies 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 hope is that the dramatic headline and the desires of the consumers will re-direct users towards the host site, where corporations can better profit from the necessary advertisement revenue.
Advertisement revenue is essential for media outlets, especially newspapers, as the circulation of national daily titles in the digital age has fallen. 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 observable. This type of journalism 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 broadcast less serious pieces of journalism and when political pieces are broadcast they are often incredibly prejudiced and malicious. Pieces concerning current events tend to be simplistic: relationship speculation dominates entertainment news, and transfer gossip is rife with football discussion. Oftentimes, trolls are associated with sensationalist journalism, and will broadcast false information and slanderous feedback on social media, which impacts the exterior perceived accuracy of journalistic output.
While there are concerns regarding the accountability and accuracy of sensationalist news outlets, there are also concerns relating to citizen journalists. If citizen journalists are intent on growing their following and reputation, it makes sense to be reactive and broadcast confirmed information rather than mere speculation. However, they do not stand to benefit much with this method, as the mainstream media adopt a similar tactic and have a much larger following, meaning the piece of the citizen journalist is likely to get lost in the crowd. The only way the citizen journalists 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 and hope for a positive outcome.
To heighten their credibility in a highly competitive industry, journalists will produce a high volume content and battle for exclusive pieces. They discover much of their information through social media, the Internet and e-mail, so they rarely leave the newsroom (Witschge & Nygren, 2009, p.43). It has long been thought that multitasking impairs your cognitive control, so it is plausible that if journalists are producing multiple pieces of content, that the accuracy of their pieces will 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 doesn’t match ours, we criticise and question the relevant producers. We will always refer to our preferred nuanced outlets to validate thoughts, claims and pieces of new information.
By nature, social media is a place where the accuracy of journalistic output can be questioned. It can bring attention to inaccuracies and hold journalists/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.
These mainstream media outlets “have an implied contract with their audience” (BBC, 2018), something that is not necessarily true for 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, the 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 addressed (Bakhurst, 2011), which can not 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 lack of available on Twitter leads to summaries, small pieces of disjointed information and as previously mentioned, links to re-direct traffic. News is rarely contextualised on social media, the host site is where you are more likely to find context and detail. Also, even with a large number of outlets, there is little diversity between pieces concerning news headlines and depending on what information you are looking for, it can be both incredibly easy and difficult to find.
“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 journalistic output. It proved to be a problem during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, there was speculation and huge volumes of content concerning the atrocity on social media – mainly Twitter – Info from police radio scanners online and on Twitter. Local residents posted photos, audio and video of shootouts where media could not reach. Hunt for suspects in social media. Mainstream media followed social media and incorporated their content (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/16/boston-marathon-explosions-reveal-twitter).
The recent hoax terror attack at Oxford Circus tube station, which prompted frantic scenes, is a positive example of networked journalism. 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 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 brought an end to the news industry monopolies, proprietor 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 but social media has certainly transformed journalistic output. While there is certainly an argument that social media has negatively impacted the accuracy of journalistic output, there is also an argument that it is highlighting the inaccuracy and nuance 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), it is complex, fluid and ever-changing, and the journalistic output on social media highlights this very point.
Social media is word of mouth on steroids. Perception, clientele and spectrum of opinion are all incredibly important when gauging the perceived accuracy, or lack thereof, of journalistic output on social media. The path to accuracy may be convoluted, but it is possible to filter our social media experiences to find accurate journalistic output on social media.