20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
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2050
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2040
S   F   O   R   J
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2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
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2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

Think twice before turning to Twitter

“The question isn’t about social media being friend or foe, but whether we’re watching journalism’s suicide by a thousand tweets.”

It’s hard to believe, but journalism in the United States may be in a more precarious situation at the end of this decade than it was at the beginning.

Back then, a global recession had already taken half of newspapers’ advertising revenue, but by now it’s taken another half. Newsroom staffing was in steep decline, but some observers thought we might have seen the bottom, and that digital media companies promised a brighter future. But this year, like every year of the past decade, saw thousands more journalists lose their jobs, including through cuts at big digital properties like BuzzFeed and Vice.

Ten years ago, there were simmering worries about unconcerned media conglomerates producing America’s news; the end of 2019 saw hedge funds and private equity taking control of much of the daily press. And just when you thought trust in the press couldn’t get any lower, a 2019 poll finds journalism inspires even less confidence than Congress.

Perhaps, we wondered a decade ago, these newfangled social media sites will be our partners, driving traffic, revenue, and transparency, helping us save journalism. Lately, though, we wonder if social media isn’t killing journalism instead.

This switch from relief effort to incursion is, of course, not a story about social media companies — which after all have always been in it for the money. It’s about journalists and their unstudied approach to the platforms. Journalists saw Twitter simply as content, sprinkling it throughout their work without considering what that means for their own authority, despite the fact that the use of social media in stories may further undermine public trust in the news. The question isn’t about social media being friend or foe, but whether we’re watching journalism’s suicide by a thousand tweets.

Our latest research, observing how journalists use tweets in news stories, examines this question. We analyzed hundreds of U.S. political news stories referencing tweets, noting how this content was presented to readers. We found journalists simply let tweets speak for themselves, leaving journalism in a position of discovery and amplification rather than one of independent verification. In most cases, journalists passed along tweets as if they were a police report, accepting the tweeter’s words as presented. In other words, journalists have come to rely on Twitter so powerfully that they treat tweets as if they are already verified and in need of no further journalistic processing.

It’s stunning to observe the facility with which journalists vacuum up these information subsidies, even in an environment where both time and resources are scarce. The use of Twitter as an information source has come to characterize news as a product and journalism as a profession. Relying on convenient access to prominent officials via Twitter seems like an easy win, but when news stories position Twitter and the content there as a primary information resource, the true winner is Twitter. Passing along tweets as the official record grants authority and legitimacy to Twitter, not to sources, and certainly not to journalists.

In 2020, journalists must think twice before turning to Twitter. There’s a mutual dependency here: Journalists rely on Twitter for information from newsmakers, and Twitter relies on journalists to lend legitimacy to itself as a platform. This becomes a feedback loop, where as Twitter becomes embedded in journalistic routine, journalists and elites both turn to it during news events. This leads journalists to use tweets in their stories, lending their own legitimacy and interpretation, thereby increasing the likelihood that elites will use it for future information releases, the likelihood that journalists will return to receive them, and the likelihood that audiences become accustomed to seeing tweets as key aspects of news stories.

In all this, power flows from journalists to Twitter, without much in return. Journalists’ efforts to either break or reinforce this cycle during next year’s elections will set the tone for their future as an independent press.

Logan Molyneux is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University. Shannon C. McGregor is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah.

It’s hard to believe, but journalism in the United States may be in a more precarious situation at the end of this decade than it was at the beginning.

Back then, a global recession had already taken half of newspapers’ advertising revenue, but by now it’s taken another half. Newsroom staffing was in steep decline, but some observers thought we might have seen the bottom, and that digital media companies promised a brighter future. But this year, like every year of the past decade, saw thousands more journalists lose their jobs, including through cuts at big digital properties like BuzzFeed and Vice.

Ten years ago, there were simmering worries about unconcerned media conglomerates producing America’s news; the end of 2019 saw hedge funds and private equity taking control of much of the daily press. And just when you thought trust in the press couldn’t get any lower, a 2019 poll finds journalism inspires even less confidence than Congress.

Perhaps, we wondered a decade ago, these newfangled social media sites will be our partners, driving traffic, revenue, and transparency, helping us save journalism. Lately, though, we wonder if social media isn’t killing journalism instead.

This switch from relief effort to incursion is, of course, not a story about social media companies — which after all have always been in it for the money. It’s about journalists and their unstudied approach to the platforms. Journalists saw Twitter simply as content, sprinkling it throughout their work without considering what that means for their own authority, despite the fact that the use of social media in stories may further undermine public trust in the news. The question isn’t about social media being friend or foe, but whether we’re watching journalism’s suicide by a thousand tweets.

Our latest research, observing how journalists use tweets in news stories, examines this question. We analyzed hundreds of U.S. political news stories referencing tweets, noting how this content was presented to readers. We found journalists simply let tweets speak for themselves, leaving journalism in a position of discovery and amplification rather than one of independent verification. In most cases, journalists passed along tweets as if they were a police report, accepting the tweeter’s words as presented. In other words, journalists have come to rely on Twitter so powerfully that they treat tweets as if they are already verified and in need of no further journalistic processing.

It’s stunning to observe the facility with which journalists vacuum up these information subsidies, even in an environment where both time and resources are scarce. The use of Twitter as an information source has come to characterize news as a product and journalism as a profession. Relying on convenient access to prominent officials via Twitter seems like an easy win, but when news stories position Twitter and the content there as a primary information resource, the true winner is Twitter. Passing along tweets as the official record grants authority and legitimacy to Twitter, not to sources, and certainly not to journalists.

In 2020, journalists must think twice before turning to Twitter. There’s a mutual dependency here: Journalists rely on Twitter for information from newsmakers, and Twitter relies on journalists to lend legitimacy to itself as a platform. This becomes a feedback loop, where as Twitter becomes embedded in journalistic routine, journalists and elites both turn to it during news events. This leads journalists to use tweets in their stories, lending their own legitimacy and interpretation, thereby increasing the likelihood that elites will use it for future information releases, the likelihood that journalists will return to receive them, and the likelihood that audiences become accustomed to seeing tweets as key aspects of news stories.

In all this, power flows from journalists to Twitter, without much in return. Journalists’ efforts to either break or reinforce this cycle during next year’s elections will set the tone for their future as an independent press.

Logan Molyneux is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University. Shannon C. McGregor is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah.

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