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How Is Social Media Not Journalism?

There’s no denying where most of us get news. Michael Jackson’s death, the Hudson River plane crash, Charlie Sheen finally going off the deep end: all things that I found out about first on Twitter. And with the political unrest spreading throughout the Middle East and Africa, Twitter has  played an integral role in telling those people’s stories when most of the traditional communication methods were blocked. (Now, there’s even a book about it.)

More so than just staying updated on current events, social media is one of the the only ways I — and I’m sure many others — get information about industry happenings. (It’s the only way if you consider Google Reader a part of social media.) Plus, it’s one of the only things that I  — and I’m sure many others — use to spread information. And it’s also one of the fastest-growing ways that companies are communications and interacting with their target audience.

But with big name brand fails happening more often than we social media junkies care to admit — Kenneth Cole uproar being the most recent that sticks out in my mind — it begs to answer one critically important question, one that should have been answered and addressed ages ago: Why isn’t social media a part of journalism?

Sarah Wulfeck summed it up practically perfectly in a blog post on Beyond:

“This kind of mistake always offends me…what is upsetting is that not only does this kind of public #fail scare other brands away from social media efforts, but it also underlines the still slow-to-adopt standard requisite that brand community management strategists should have both journalistic experience and ethics training.”

Social media has an ever-more influential position in the disseminating and the consumption of news and information, and it strikes me as odd that I get assaulted from my more mainstream journalism friends with accusations that I’m letting my journalism degree go to waste by being a digital marketer. If journalism is defined as the researching, reporting, and writing of news and information that appeals to popular taste and is then presented through the media (Webster’s words, not mine), then how could you deny social media being a element of journalism?

On a more very basic level, journalism is about telling people’s stories, about adding narrative and insight into people’s lives. I tell stories every single day through social media, whether my own or my clients: I just do it in 500-word blog posts, or 3-line Facebook updates, or 14o-character tweets.

Take blogs, for instance, which, thankfully, are now widely considered a crucial element to social media. I took the majority of the same steps I did when writing an article for Creative Loafing or The Gainesville Sun as I did when writing this post. I researched my topic; I decided on a news angle; I found some sources; I double-checked those sources; I found art; copy-edited it; I published it. Yup, looks like journalism to me.

That’s a pretty linear connection. But what about when things go gray? How does Facebook and Twitter integrate into journalism? Clearly you provide analysis and insight on each of those, but not all content is journalism. And sure there’s spam and rumor and gossip swirling around social media, but aren’t those prevalent in “mainstream” journalism, too? Ahem, Steven Glass. Jayson Blair. Janet Cooke. Hailey Mac Arthur (yeah, I still haven’t forgotten how you tarnished the reputation of my UF journalism degree). We believed what those people wrote to be true once. We know that all journalists don’t fall under that umbrella, so doesn’t that carry over to social media journalism, too?

Perhaps a more accepted reasoning behind this debate is that social media, specifically Twitter in this instance, is the tool used rather than the action taken. And if used properly by the right people, that tool can be used to spread journalistic content. While some argue you need more than 140 characters to substantiate content as actual journalism, at one point didn’t we think that you needed a newspaper for something to be journalism? There’s always going to be shades of gray when determining what type of content curation is considered journalism.

Still, when all is said and done, the fact that the AP Stylebook included a Social Media Guidelines in its 2010 edition is enough reason for me to believe that even if people don’t consider it journalism now, it sure will be as more people accept social media as a medium and a tool than just a passing fad.

What do you think? Is social media an element of journalism? Should social media practitioners have that vital journalism and communications training?

erin everhartErin Everhart is the marketing associate for the Orlando web design company 352 Media Group where she specializes in social media marketing services, search engine optimization and content management, working with some of the company’s most prominent clients. She’s also a freelance reporter for multiple newspapers and online sites and a frequent blogger. She holds a B.S. in journalism from the University of Florida and has an unhealthy addiction to salt, EM dashes and the Gators. Follow her on Twitter :: @erinever.

  • Jo

    Please! No, never.

    Do I become a lawyer because I’m able to download generic contracts from the web and use them as legally binding documents? I think not.

    Journalism practise – as imperfect as it is – at the very least has some checks and balances that lend at least an attempt at credibility. Basics like quoting two sources, getting both sides of the story and using sub-editors are but some of the differences in favour of structured news reporting. (Reread the first line of your second paragraph, for example).

    If you want to write, blog, ‘report’ via your own web-based media, go for it. But calling yourself a journalist is not much different from the lawyer example, or at the extreme – calling yourself a doctor because you diagnose using Wikipedia.

    • Erin Everhart

      I think that’s a valid point, Jo. Diagnosing that I have a cold no more makes me a doctor. But there’s a much different level of practice that goes into being a doctor than being a journalist. With doctors and lawyers, you have that clear level of distinction that makes you a doctor or a lawyer: going to med school & completing a residency or passing the bar.

      But that’s a little less clear with journalism, especially now. Not everyone who gets a journalism degree is a journalist or a practitioner of journalism, but there are people who didn’t get a journalism degree who would be considered journalists.

      I don’t think that people who report or disseminate information via social media are journalists. My argument is that social media, at least when used in this context, is an element of journalism. With the ways of how we create and get information constantly changing, that definition of journalism is going to be refined.

      An even better question is one I pose in the end: Should social media managers have at least some element of journalism training if they’re going to be the “face” behind information a company puts out?

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  • Jo

    Hi Erin

    Having qualified as a journalist I find it very difficult to accept that ‘communicators’ are necessarily now journalists.

    I think that the above encapsulates the difference.

    A PR practitioner is not a journalist (even though, like myself, the industry is awash with ex-hacks who appreciate being able to eat more than beans on toast at the cost of not being at the forefront of the news). Corporate communicators certainly have a role to play, but I feel very strongly that we need a differentiation in the terminology/description.

    The concept of a ‘citizen journalist’ is probably more flexible, but also subject to how that journalism is practised and what checks and balances are built into the news gathering, writing & publishing processes.

    As for your last point: again, communication or PR-specific training is probably more appropriate than journalism per se.

    Interesting debate, nonetheless.

  • http://www.osgblog.com Burton Hohman

    Good article, and I think some people are not understanding your point based on the comments. You aren’t saying that every person who has a blog or who tweets is now a journalist. But that there can be trained people who use social media just as a different medium for news. I speak from first hand experience. I am a college student, I don’t own a tv or read the newspaper; I see the news via social media. I have a blog and I tweet that doesn’t make me a journalist though, and thats not what Erin was arguing.

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  • http://www.justincaseyouwerewondering.com Justin Goldsborough

    Erin, you nailed it in your second-to-last paragraph — Twitter and social media are tools, just as the newspaper is. In fact, the reason newspapers are in so much trouble today is because they mistakenly ID’d their product as the newspaper instead of the news.

    The medium will continue to change. What matters is the conversation and how people (not media outlets or the industry) choose to communicate. People who stick up their nose at social media and say it’s not “real journalism” are living in a dream world and aren’t watching what’s happening around them.

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