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Journalists evaluate social media

John Cameron | Tuesday, September 20, 2011

During an annual journalism forum Monday, Professor Robert Schmuhl held up the Sept. 2 issue of The Observer for the Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy Advisory Committee to see.

He read the top headline aloud: “Notre Dame embraces social media use.”

This headline is just one example of the increased popularity of Twitter and Facebook around the world, Schmuhl said.

“What do Twitter, Facebook and all the other social networking technologies mean [not only] for practitioners of journalism, but also for those who receive news opinion and analysis?” Schmuhl asked.

The Gallivan board members, all experienced journalists, focused their discussion on this shift toward constant online updates and its consequences.

Meg Martin, online editor for “The Roanoke Times,” said journalism’s engagement with social media is a result of readers’ demand for greater accessibility.

“It’s about bringing [stories] to where people are,” Martin said. “Some people want [stories] to show up in their pockets, on their iPads or phones. Some say they want them to show up on Facebook or in their Twitter feeds.”

For Monica Yant Kinney, metro columnist for The Philadelphia Enquirer, social media is also a valuable tool for receiving feedback and gauging public interest.

“[Facebook] is an ongoing dialogue between people who have some interest in what I’m doing or what we’re doing at the paper,” she said. “If two or three total strangers find a topic engaging, I think a few hundred thousand readers might find it engaging.”

While many news organizations now see social media as a necessity, Kinney said it could also be a positive opportunity.

“We are totally powerless to change a lot of these trends in our industry,” Kinney said. “My theory is that this is about enhancing and further building my brand and my employer’s brand.”

Kelley Tuthill, a reporter for WCVB-TV in Boston, said the responsibility to maintain an online presence poses a stressful but exciting challenge for journalists.

“We’re expected to tweet,” Tuthill said. “If I go out on a story, I’m expected to tweet throughout the day. There’s a live feed all day long on our website.”

This summer, Tuthill covered the notorious mobster Joseph “Whitey” Bulger’s trial. She said the case tested her ability to balance traditional reporting with social media coverage.

“It’s really hard to follow the proceedings and tweet the whole time,” she said.

Despite the challenge, Tuthill believes the social media element enhanced WCVB-TV’s overall coverage.

“People loved it,” Tuthill said. “I can’t tell you how many people told me, ‘You made me feel like I was in the courtroom.’ I heard from victims’ families that they followed it.”

Tuthill did, however, express concern that social media coverage may distract reporters from focusing on the traditional print, online or broadcast story.

“Now you get 140-character updates nonstop,” she said. “We’re doing that. We’re taking pictures. In some cases, we’re recording videos on our iPhones. Something’s got to give, sure. At the end of the day — six o’clock — is there an effect on the quality [of the broadcast story]? Maybe.”

While social media may take its toll on broadcast and print products, Twitter and Facebook are not a death sentence for the industry, Bill Mitchell, head of Entrepreneurial and International Programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said.

“[Social media] is partly supplanting traditional means of distribution, which, in the long-run is not a bad thing,” Mitchell said. “If we can distribute through Facebook instead of trucks and gasoline, I think that’s not a bad thing.”

Despite the advantages of social media, the panelists said journalists should still use caution in their online updates.

Anne Thompson, chief environmental affairs correspondent for NBC News, said journalists must be conscience of how their use of social media may reflect on their organizations.

“It’s dangerous, I understand, having done this for many years now, [determining] where the line is between the personal and professional,” Thompson said. “If you’ve got the [NBC logo] peacock on your picture or ‘NBC’ at the end of your name, what you’re doing is representative of the network, not just you.”

While readers continue to demand constant updates via Twitter and Facebook, Thompson said social media would never eliminate their desire for developed news stories.

“I don’t think journalism is going to come down to 140 characters,” Thompson said. “It’s one tool, but you can’t be an informed citizen if all you follow is Twitter. Excellent writing is always going to be the most important part of journalism — that is always going to be king.”