Social MediaJournalism

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 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 communicating 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 dissemination and consumption of news and information, and it strikes me as odd that I get assaulted by 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 an 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 client’s: I just do it in 500-word blog posts, 3-line Facebook updates, or 14o-character tweets.

Take blogs, for instance, which, thankfully, are now widely considered a crucial element of 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; and published it. Yup, looks like journalism to me.

That’s a pretty linear connection. But what about when things go gray? How do 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 the 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 are 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 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.

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