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Four ways social media has deteriorated traditional journalism

Overall, social media has revitalized traditional journalism. Twitter has allowed reporters to develop their personalities and communicate directly with their followers in real time.  Facebook, especially with its recent changes, allows journalists to post stories and other content which fans can subscribe to and consume on that platform.

Even small, local newspapers can compete in the breaking news world with national media, one tweet at a time, and gain a national following.

Case in point: Sara Ganim, the crime reporter for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Penn., gained national prominence for her coverage of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal at Penn State. Most of the people who learned of her superb reporting did so on Twitter, where Ganim has more than 14,000 followers.

But traditional journalism has let social media hurt its franchise.

Here are four areas where social media has been a problem for journalism:

Lowered the standards. It used to be that newspapers, large and small, shared a common set of standards for what journalists would and wouldn’t do. Sure, there were exceptions and not everyone operated by the same “rules.” But there were clear standards of ethical conduct, story verification and clear ways to correct errors.

For example, reputable traditional journalists would not routinely publish one-source unnamed stories. Major news organizations would not immediately republish a small news outlet’s story citing unnamed sources.

Because of Twitter, that now happens frequently. CBSSports.com recently re-tweeted – incorrectly – that Joe Paterno had died. They relied on a student web site that in turn relied on unnamed sources.  As I wrote at the time, I did not see this as Twitter’s failing. It was traditional journalism’s fault for lowering its standards.

Anyone is a journalist.  Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry, one of the funniest writers on the planet, once said that Miami’s notoriously bad drivers were, in fact, following the rules. It’s just that in Miami, “it is customary for everyone to drive according to laws of his or her country of origin.”

Today, that is an appropriate definition of who is a journalist.  Everyone writes according to the laws of his or her platform of origin.  Some “journalists” exist only on Twitter. Others operate just on blogs.

And because everyone has a platform, everyone thinks he or she is a journalist. Rather than taking advantage of the situation to differentiate themselves in the news world as a more authoritative and experienced source, they went the other way.

Many traditional journalism outlets have contributed to the bankruptcy of the term journalist by altering their hiring standards and practices. People who have no fact-gathering experience are now blogging for major outlets. And other outlets have acknowledged, quoted and otherwise legitimized reports from websites, blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages they would have never relied on before the advent of social media.

It’s really sad, to watch this proud profession chasing every rumor with an earnest sincerity, as if the news world would implode because some yahoo actually posted some kernel of truth first.  Which leads us to:

The tarnished credibility of traditional journalists.  The Indianapolis Star really had this headline on its website: “Rob Lowe says Peyton Manning will retire; father, agent says no.” And then their esteemed columnist, Bob Kravitz, wrote a column about chasing the Rob Lowe Twitter post (I won’t link to it because it’s behind a pay wall).

Really? Rob Lowe is a journalist? Really? A major metro and a major columnist have to react to an unattributed, unsubstantiated hearsay Twitter post by an actor? So, in chasing such stuff, whose credibility falls a notch?

Blurring the line between opinion and fact.  The biggest myth in traditional journalism is that there is separation between fact and opinion.  Reporters write fact and columnists write opinions. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Reporters write columns labeled “analysis” as if that is supposed to excuse the proliferation of opinion.  Don’t get me wrong, there are times when a well-reported story qualifies as an analysis: examining a trend and talking to many people about what happens next, for example.

But when the analysis veers into speculation, then its opinion, no matter what label you stick on it.

More importantly – or more telling – is any semblance of objectivity is thrown out the window when the reporter starts tweeting. To assume they can write “objective” stories in print, “analysis” piece online and then only do opinion on Twitter seems far-fetched.

Next week, we will dive further into how social media has blurred the line between opinion and fact.

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