In so many ways, users of social media improve our journalism


Of late in these pages we’ve offered semi-regular themed editions that go beyond our normal presentation of several topical subjects.

This Sunday we focus on social media’s impact on politics and public policy. The rationale should be straightforward enough. As Trump rose to power with his Twitter account in tow, we’ve seen a hauntingly fresh example of how powerful a communications tool it can be. And how dangerous. The ability to communicate instantly to the world can, especially for high-profile users, easily turn into a wizard’s wand that backfires spectacularly when poorly employed.

Going into this week’s column, I thought I would go negative and rank our culture’s present use of the communications tool as a huge disappointment.

Certainly I would have been on solid ground. But the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t want to focus on the negative in this space. Other items in the package do a good job of that already.

And the truth is, since the beginning of language, we’ve always known that what we do with our speech, through whatever medium, can be and often is used for subterfuge, coercion, manipulation or lying.

One of the first stories many of us learned is that of a couple of human beings lied to God, and He cursed us all. No, I don’t believe the story. But I like how the metaphor helps explain that we’ve been dealing with ill communication since the first homo sapiens developed the ability for abstract thought.

Which is one of the reasons we have journalism in the first place. Granted. But for all its messiness and disappointment, social media has and continues to improve what it is we do as journalists. Here are a few examples.

  • When users are on their game, they keep journalists on theirs. Social media destroys the ability of news organizations to sit on stories. If something is going on in your community, and the local press is ignoring it, or somehow unaware of it or its significance, users of social media and their followers can quickly generate attention in myriad ways. Competition is good for us, and improves what we offer consumers of the news.

Yes, the observation cuts both ways. If a newsroom digs into a story and finds it flimsy or goofy in a legitimate way, activist users of social media can, and too often do, create enough heat to make editors blink and go with the BS.

  • The benefit journalists get in seeing so many viewpoints and so many presentations of events from so many angles is priceless. Whether watching debates, tracking a bill or wondering how a Congressional hearing is going, users’ insights enrich the coverage.
  • Journalists are able to solicit information from vastly more people than doing it the old way, making the job of getting the pulse of the community or region or nation on any given subject or event vastly more informative and richer.
  • Social media sites make it possible to learn from experts in ways exponentially faster than working the phones and shoe-leather reporting ever did. I’ll never forget the excitement upon learning this early in my use of Facebook. I had posted a blog, and soon enough found myself engaged in a virtual chat with a handful of experts on the subject. In less than 30 minutes I learned what it would have taken me a day to report out working the phones.

Yes, the opportunity is often spoiled by trolls. Another problem, as social media became ubiquitous, it became almost impossible to keep up with commenters during the course of a busy work day. But we’ve learned how to skim anymore. Some days, it’s like that TweetDeck feed on the opposite screen becomes something that informs through osmosis. No, that’s not deep thinking, but it provides important clues needed to engage in serious consideration of issues.

  • Social media holds us accountable. If you get it wrong, or only halfway right, you’ll hear about it, and the world will see.

For all its negatives, there are likely many more positives. For those sincerely seeking the truth, the wealth of viewpoints and expertise and on-the-ground knowledge available is like nothing we as social beings have ever seen.

We’ve been given an awesome gift. The trick is using wisely.

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