Social Media and the News

Taking a Picture in Zurich

A New Era in Journalism

A wave has been building in the ocean of journalism over the past few years and last week it crashed upon the shores of the American media in full force. This wave has altered the way that news is broken, covered, reported, and consumed by the general public. It has also given ordinary citizens the ability to report stories as they unfold and beat the mainstream media to the punch.

This wave is social media and it has gradually been changing the field of journalism. While it has been looked to for breaking news in the past few years, the events at the Boston Marathon and especially the Watertown manhunt brought social media to the forefront. In this new era of news reporting Twitter and YouTube have become the instant news service, Reddit has become the new investigative service, and anyone with a smartphone can be a reporter. One of the tweets late Thursday/early Friday morning said it well:

Is this the first time that social media has been involved in reporting a news story? Not at all. However it was the first time that many Americans became aware of Twitter in particular as an instant news service. Many, like me, sat captivated on Thursday and Friday following the #Watertown hashtag on their computers, iPads, and iPhones as residents in the neighborhood posted updates of what was going on in the streets outside of their houses. Tweets from locals, pictures of police walking the streets and bullet holes in walls, videos of the Boston Marathon explosions and the manhunt with gunshots heard in the background, Google Maps diagrams of the neighborhoods in Boston, and Reddit forums compiling all the information; all of this happening 30-45 minutes before most major news services reported the same details. It was pretty amazing to watch this shift as it occurred.

The Tradeoff: Speed vs Accuracy

Of course this rise in the prominence of social media as a news source isn’t all flowers and fluffy bunnies. With the increased speed of reporting also comes some pretty substantial downsides.

Here are a few pros and cons of the rise of social media as a news source:


  • Instantaneous Coverage
    Anyone can keep track of the most recent developments by following reliable sources. No one has to wait for the evening news or the newspaper the next day to get the latest information.
  • Decentralization of News
    Until the advent of social media, news information was pretty much controlled by the major news organizations and their local affiliates. Eyewitnesses played a limited role in communicating the story. Now information can be communicated almost instantly by eyewitnesses, creating thousands of citizen-journalists who can serve as reliable sources for major news organizations.
  • Wealth of Information
    Anyone with a smartphone or computer can take part in the collection and spread of information. People near an event can share their experience from different viewpoints, giving authorities multiple angles, images, and videos to work with. Even the Boston Police Department’s Twitter account got involved and proved itself to be a very trustworthy source of verified information at a relatively fast speed.
  • Competitive Environment
    Since almost anyone can report news now, their is competition for who can share the most accurate information in the shortest amount of time. This involves a tradeoff between speed and accuracy in most cases. During the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing and manhunt, it was interesting to see different news sources wrestle with and adjust their strategy several times between trying to be first and trying to be reliable.
  • Access to Primary Sources
    Reporters and the public now have access to primary sources on the ground. On Thursday night/Friday morning, I followed several Watertown residents as they tweeted what was unfolding in their neighborhood. This was unheard of until the rise of social media.


  • Amplified Inaccuracies
    The major problem with the wave of social media news is the speed at which information travels. Any false information, rumors, or accusations, are rapidly spread across the Internet. This happened several times last week including false arrests, wrongly identified suspects (who were harrassed and slandered until information was corrected), and other inaccuracies. Several mainstream news sources fell victim to this at the beginning of the investigation (CNN, New York Post, and others) in the race to become the first and go-to source for information.  As a result, during the manhunt, many of them dailed back their speed in order to make sure they had checked and double-checked their sources to prevent getting more egg on their face (ie the tortoise vs the hare of news reporting). 
  • Hinderance of Investigations
    The other major downside of instant public reporting is the potential to hinder an investigation. Multiple times throughout the manhunt, the Boston Police encouraged people to refrain from tweeting what they heard on police scanners because they didn’t want the suspect (or any possible accomplices) to know their movements or strategy. Also, the amount of information and misinformation presents authorities with the challenge of sorting through it all to find actionable data, which could slow an investigation (or lead to more amplified inaccuracies).

Above All: Use Discernment

Overall, I believe the rise of social media as a viable medium for reporting news is a positive development. While it may not always be the most accurate, the sheer speed at which information can be conveyed gives people the feeling that they are live on the scene and in the middle of the action (just be aware that the information found on social media sites may not be the most accurate). Additionally, it gives traditional media sources more information to work with as they serve as filters that sort through all the information and deliver the most-trustworthy facts, even if there is a little delay. Mainstream news sources aren’t going to die because of social media as some have predicted, they will just have to adjust accordingly and decide what trade-off between speed and accuracy they want to make in order to preserve their brand and reputation.

What are your thoughts on the wave of social media news? Are there any pros/cons that I missed? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

Learn It. Love It. Live It.

For more reading on social media and journalism, check out “It’s Time for Truth on Social Media” on Mashable:
More on social media by Lawson: Social Media and the Church || Social Media and the Classroom

[image credit: Alexandre Dulaunoy on Flickr]

About Lawson Hembree
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3 Responses to Social Media and the News

  1. Moriah says:

    Being not so far away from the situation, I was very thankful for the Boston PD feed. In the desire to be first, the major media pages did jump to a lot of conclusions initially (some proved to be true, but others not so much). Having access to a faster, reliable source was very helpful as we tried to sort out what was happening and how we needed react.

    I think there could also be some ethical concerns with the rise of social media use for news events. The line between what should be public information and respecting people’s privacy is already fuzzy, and social media makes it more so.

  2. Pingback: Daily Dose (4/24/13) | My Journey Home

  3. Pingback: Is Social Media Making Us Less Social? [Part 2] | Lawson Hembree's Blog

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