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Seeing social media for what it is

“What’s the return on investment here? For each hour spent using social media for work, what, precisely, is gained? And what is lost?”

2009 began with a touchstone moment for social media and journalism. When a plane went down in the Hudson River, Twitter was first to have the information, beating mainstream media by about 15 minutes. Journalists were not pleased to note that the first and most widely shared photograph of the incident was captured not by one of their own but by a ferry passenger. The (blurry, smudged, unfortunately vertical) photograph shows people scrambling out of US Airways flight 1549 and into rafts on the Hudson River.

The photograph went viral, and traffic was so intense it crashed TwitPic’s servers. I was working as a city editor at a small daily newspaper at the time, and my memory of this moment is that it galvanized interest in social media generally and Twitter specifically — not just in my newsroom but in professional circles across the globe. It was one thing if people wanted to use Twitter to post pictures of their lunch, but we weren’t going to let them use it to beat us at our own game.

In 2019, a decade later, journalists will finally come to see social media for what it really is — and what it isn’t. It’s a wonder for finding people and seems to open the door for non-elite sources. It’s a brilliant mechanism for keeping tabs on what (some) people are talking about, so much so that use of Twitter seems to influence news judgment. It’s a useful promotional tool, and reporters are taking advantage.

But the longer we study journalism’s love/hate relationship with social media, the more we begin to wonder whether it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Reputation management forces reporters to project a strictly professional identity online. It provides great opportunities for audience engagement, but journalists interact mostly with each other, and female journalists especially face rampant harassment there. It’s a massive time-suck, with devotion to social media measured in hours per day, not least because its use is mandated by upper management. It’s not a business model. Neither its conception nor its realization is inherently journalistic, despite the best efforts of its executives to pitch it as such. And of course, you may have heard that its mechanisms and platforms are routinely gamed by malicious actors, a practice sometimes called “dark participation.”

The key question for journalists of 2019 to answer is this: What’s the return on investment here? For each hour spent using social media for work, what, precisely, is gained? And what is lost? This goes far beyond metrics of reach and audience, which are too easily spun to hide deficits in trust. Instead, it forces journalists to examine what they’re not doing as they chase shares and likes across a sea of profiles and timelines. This is a question of efficiency, of fiscal responsibility, of professional control, and more — but mostly it’s a question of identity.

I recently discussed social media practices in contemporary newsrooms with my journalism students at Temple University. After hearing of metrics, branding, engagement, and so on, they asked me, somewhat incredulously: “Is this what journalists do?” That, I said, is a very good question.

Logan Molyneux is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University.

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