Are journalists putting too much trust in social media sources?

The internet and digital communication has had a profound effect on the media industry. Media can be distributed globally in a matter of moments, and the ease with which journalists can find sources has been greatly aided by tools such as Twitter. Need a quote? Then search a hashtag on Twitter or for a blog via Google and find a credible source.

There’s no denying that social and digital media are shaping how journalists work. Rather than quoting in the traditional sense, news articles reference tweets.

There are risks in referring to sources in this manner. Can you trust that they person is who they say they are? Do they really represent those who they claim to be talking on behalf of? Do they know the subject well enough to be viewed as a credible source?

I can imagine that the Arab Spring has been both exciting and infuriating for media. Many countries have not taken too kindly to media entering their borders and reporting on goings-on. There have been some groundbreaking stories coming out of Syria in particular, with journalists putting themselves in harms way to report on the ground.

And then there has been instances of deception. The worst was the case of the Gay Girl in Damascus, who went from being a global source on what was going on in Syria through her blog to…

… an American graduate student named Tom MacMaster who was studying in Scotland.

The hoax may be the worst case example of what can go wrong when using online media for references. What concerns me more is when journalists and media outlets source speakers online. Unless they’re careful, the people who end up becoming the witnesses or the quoted experts are those with the biggest following online.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen online. I was listening to a post on the BBC World a week ago and heard a report about the first Saudi female Olympians. The person being interviewed was a female Saudi journalist residing in New York.

As I sat listening to the report, I could not help but ask myself why was the BBC interviewing a person sitting thousands of miles away from the country under focus. Would this person hold a mainstream opinion? Even some of her facts which she used to corroborate her arguments were flimsy (for example, she said there are no female gyms in Saudi Arabia, which is false).

Being a good journalist is one of the hardest jobs out there, especially in the Middle East where people can often be reticent around media and yet the editor still wants the story filed ASAP. However, I would like to ask my friends in the media to think before they quote from online, and ask themselves if they’re background checking that person, if they need to quote the same person for the Xth time, and if they should quote from online sources when alternatives are available.

49 thoughts on “Are journalists putting too much trust in social media sources?

  1. I hold a master’s degree in journalism, and I have to say: The requests/inquiries in your final paragraph are in no way asking too much of journalists! That should be standard questioning/protocol for any reporter. Sadly, with the rise in the practice of crowdsourcing, it seems many quality journalistic practices are becoming passe.

  2. I’m 32 and don’t really know what a journalist is anymore. Can’t anyone be a journalist with these same social media networks? Anyone with a decent smart phone can become the worldwide face of a story if they’re there when the action pops off.

    I can’t speak for everyone of course, but at least here in America, we’ve basically lost all confidence in nearly anyone claiming to be a journalist. Which is incredibly sad and unfortunate.

    Cheers,

    Damien

    • That’s probably one of the most frustrating things about journalism in the U.S. Many people think it’s good that anyone can theoretically become a journalist, but I as a young journalist think it’s scary.

      You shouldn’t trust just anyone reporting the news, but you’re right — anyone there when the action starts has a jump on the journalists trying to report later… even if the journalists are the ones trained with news judgement and dedicated to reporting as accurately as possible. It’s easy for them to get buried, unless you’re actively looking for their reports.
      And of course “trained” journalists can make mistakes too, as the blog pointed out. Social media is a tool that needs to be used very carefully.

      Citizen journalism has its place, but I worry that it will take the place of the real authentic journalism that has played such a huge role in history.

      • Emily, thanks for your reply. I appreciate it. Could you perhaps give me a few solid examples of why a trained journalist is preferable to a citizen journalist? Don’t you think in many ways that the western world is a bit tired of scripted and packaged news?

      • To answer your first question, a trained journalist is preferable because there is ideally a certain amount of trust there. Trained journalists know media law, they know the importance of good-quality sources and most importantly, they know how to write efficiently, unbiased and well. I think you’re right, the western world is tired of scripted and packaged news — the news that came along with cable. Cable allows you to pick and choose your news, and has created this environment of ratings-driven news. Instead of reporting the important stories accurately and unbiased, some stations are looking at what their audiences want… not the news.

      • What do you believe is the most important news story facing the American people right now Emily?

      • For me, a journalist is someone who should inform and should also provide an insight that others would miss. From social media I may know what is going on, but I may not know why.

        Citizen journalism shouldn’t replace traditional media, but it can act as a very useful tool to know what is happening, especially in countries where there are restrictions on media. Thanks for your insight and views Emily.

  3. Simple answer: yes. I think everyone is becoming too reliant on social media. Like the retired bullfighter’s picture floating around Facebook with a bazillion “likes”, the description of which was entirely false. It’s very sad when even journalists buy into the hype and end up providing false news. Fox News is one of the worst examples of this. Their “news” is just speculation at least 50% of the time.

  4. I am a newspaper reporter for a small paper. Around here, Facebook in particular has proven a useful tool — for *finding* leads and sources. I have never quoted anything from social media, but I have been able to track down sources through it, who I then contacted directly, and I’ve stumbled across a few good human interest stories through it as well, stories I never would have known about otherwise.

    Finding and vetting credible sources was one of the first things they taught us in college. At that time, Wikipedia was the No. 1 online tool they warned us to use very carefully, but all the social networking sites have since become just as big a source of potential misinformation. Yes, we’re often working on tight deadlines, but it’s still our job to make sure the people we’re talking to are who they say they are, or the whole story goes to crap.

    Great post!

  5. Would you consider the possibility that it is not online sourcing driving these fumbles but rather the need for speed in delivering the story first, against ever-increasing numbers of media outlets?

  6. Social media was the only way anyone could get an idea of what was “really” going on in certain places with media blackouts so there’s a desperation to get information, any information at all. This has become true on all levels of reporting as reporters are rushing to be first rather than be accurate.

    I think social media has no place as a source for credible journalism. I’m not faulting those who do, but as you have pointed out, it’s far too easy to be misled into writing a false story despite good intentions.

  7. The BBC is often guilty of interviewing truly random sources — they once IVed a guy I’d never heard of (I’ve been a NY journo since 1989 and in this biz since 1979). as “an American journalist” in London, with no further mention of his credentials or affiliations. Seriously? I would expect a lot more from the BBC. But apparently not.

    I work FT freelance and the financial pressure to produce is as tough as the time element for those journos with salaries — as one colleague agreed with ,e last week, we’re working twice as hard for half the income. So it’s tempting (wrongly) to take as many short-cuts as possible.

    Tweets look sexy and make you look cool and in the know. Whatever…Often the best sources are much quieter, harder to find and take time to cultivate — and trust — no matter where they are.

    Great post. Thanks!

  8. That’s true! It is a tough job; there is no easy way with good journalism. Even us bloggers should treat every piece of information off the social media with caution and care. A really good article! =)

  9. Have we not been putting too much trust in the journalists, especially those from the TV and Radio? They are shamelessly propagandists, advertisers, traders in information, twisters of facts and dangerously untruthful in their stories. They are corrupt: they accept various kinds of illegal gratifications, the three Ws included. Some of them even behave like press mafiosi.Thanks to social media, they are reduced to their true worth. They stand exposed even before they have run their stories for half a day- sometimes they are forced to abruptly end their mischievous story even before finishing its first run! Today they are lampooned, derided and despised. The result is that newspapers have lost their popularity- they are so much advertisement that the first full page is simply advertisement and the banner headlines and anchor too are advertisements. They use nude female photographs as fillers and serve soft porn. So is the case with magazines, most of them have already closed business. And the TV is nothing more than crime and sex and violence. They are suffering terrible drought of quality content. Even in eroticism & pornography of their kind, they end up as extremely poor copiers. They have no originality!

  10. Excellent post! I often wonder why the same source seems to be the only quote available to journalists. Who is finding the alternate facts and opinions?

  11. It’s as true today as it was in Marshall McLuhan’s time: the medium is the message. What is the news media trying to tell us by pushing Twitter as a “reliable source”?

  12. Very thought provoking. In September I’m starting a MA of Journalism degree and I have no background in Journalism. I think pieces like this are an important and valid point, especially for someone like myself who is entering in a time when Social media/blogs seem to be just part of the business.
    Thanks!

    • Good luck with the degree and if you ever need any insights from a grizzled hack would be happy to help! Journalism is changing so quickly and it can be an effort to keep up.

  13. It would seem that checking backgrounds of sources is tossed aside to meet deadlines and be the first to break a story. This is what I’ve seen in journalism, especially when using media and internet info to build a story. It’s a shame, really. With so many glaring areas for error, it’s easy to see how a majority of our news outlets and stories are relaying false information.

  14. I cannot tell you how much I agree with you. In fact, it infuriates me how many “articles” are written by “journalists” in which they just describe word, for word, what they have seen in an internet discussion. Stories quoting anonymous reddit users and someone said something on Twitter. There is no leg work in clicking a link. If you want to use the internet for reference sure, but also do some research. Very well done.

  15. Very well said. It can be so easy to trust a source that fits so perfectly within our own biases. I was have to say that the media needs to do a little soul searching before it starts condemning or condoning.

  16. It is not that journalists are lazy as someone said above. It is in most cases sheer time pressure – accelerated by online tools. I suppose most journalists still know about the necessity to check the sources. But the time to do it is not there in more and more cases say with a hungry “news ticker” waiting to be fed. Simply mentioning the third party source even when not checked must regularly do the trick to satisfy the “news ticker” and the editor´s pressure. “You have named a source and the other media XY and XYZ already came out with this info also mentioning this twitter source, so we are not alone with any risk, come on…” It will take you more energy and power to fight for standards than to satisfy the editor. Sad and depressing, but reality. Oh, and don´t blame the media alone. As long as the sweet wine from unknown sources finds more consumers than simple clean water it is not a case of producers only but of consumers, too.

  17. One problem social media seems to have today in relating to journalism is how so much is spent on public opinion getting the story across instead of the actual facts. Yes, news outlets can say “Let us know what you think on our Facebook or Twitter page” but don’t rely on that for all the info. Even when it comes to the Olympics, too much time is spent on how much people are “tweeting” about events instead of the actual events. Get the story across and then if you have a second or two, read a FB post or tweet online. If an outlet can’t do this then skip that process all together.

  18. Great wake-up call and reminder for us all to stop and think about these issues instead of getting all caught up in the social media/tweeting hype.

  19. A great post, Alex, on a worthy topic. Thanks.

    I guess Journalists can be as careful as they like about the validity of their sources information, but there will always be those who sneak through the net.

    Apart from the dangers of social media as a source, how about our reliable upstanding and honest politicians being just as suspect.

    How many of them have fed a pack of garbage to a Journalist as part of their political spin?

  20. The problem is much deeper than quoting online sources. In the past few years we’ve seen scandals in the NYT and I won’t even comment on Fox News & the other Murdoch “news” outlets.
    Serious reporting is being substituted by manipulative journalism, misleading titles and writing that reeks of an agenda.

  21. Twitters are only good for people and their occuppations. Media is the medium of all things past present and future. Maybe if a person used their real names, and were permitted to authenticate their identity online, things would appear so frightening or absurd. The internet, and the available authentication standards are going toward an automatic realm of the same fears and shady dealers. Many marketing the same mobile devices, and not eliminating the mobile vulnerabilities of fear. JOurnalists are tought to walk the straight and narrow or the in the threshold between fact and fake. I think marketers could solve many problems mandating the use of real identities for everyone.

  22. woahhh that story is NUTS!!! i can’t believe that! fuckn crazy.

    a similar thing happened where wikileaks released a fake op-ed praising wikileaks under the guise of the NYT – it was so successful that even other reporters from the NYT retweeted the article. in the end though, once the hoax was revealed it only hurt wikileaks’ reputation because it proved how easily they could make fraudulent articles or statements look truthful.

    yes..we 100% put too much trust in social media!

  23. Personally I have a very low opinion of the journalist of the current crop. They want quick buck these days and they are highly manipulative to get their jobs done (and PARTY even though their misinformation might stigmatize a certain section). They donot wish to study the entire crux of the matter but wish to impose their prejudice mindsets on other people.

    In short I believe many of the journalists are inspired by the propaganda and brainwashing aspects of information which was used to utmost level in NAZI Germany and which North Korea and CHINA uses. The only difference is that present ones are more subtle, more under the radar.

    No doubt there are some honest journalist out there who even die for their cause (THE TRUE ONES) but they are very few in number.

    I try to read as many newspapers,websites and blogs, plus watch various News channels to cross verify the authenticity of information.

  24. First of all, this was a great article! I definitely feel like a lot of journalists are putting too much faith in Internet sources. Heck, even people who do not work in the journalism field put too much faith in Internet sources. There seems to be a common belief that if it’s on the Internet, it MUST be true. A great example of this would be the whole “you swallow spiders in your sleep” Internet experiment that was started in 1993 by PC Professional’s Lisa Holst. If you haven’t read about it already, Lisa Holst wanted to prove that people can easily be fooled into believing made-up facts if they were seen on the Internet. She proved this by sending chain letter e-mails with her own list of made-up facts (the spider one being the most popular). These e-mails eventually caught on and even got the The Daily Mirror talking about the issue around 2006. If that doesn’t scream “point proven” then I don’t know what does. :P

    Aside from that, I feel like social media is an important tool when it comes to getting the “citizen” point of view on hot-button issues. In many ways, it has allowed us to communicate with people that, without our given technological advantages, we would have not been given the opporutunity to even know. But at the end of the day, I tend to respect the well-research fact of a journalist more than the angry, Internet-quoting twenty-something. But that’s not to say that all journalists provide such ground-breaking, unbiased pieces. I mean look at CNN. I don’t think I need to say anymore than that. Ha ha.

  25. The conversations that surround social media, journalism, citizen journalism and the internet are endless! The internet is changing everything. Yes, you are totally right, Journalism was once a prestigous field but has now been turned into an open arena for aspiring journalist.Although, this brings great challenges to the ethics of journalism, social media (most notably throughout the Arab Springs played a remarkable roll) it gave the people of the Middle East a freedom of speech!

    Maybe, this isnt good for journalism, it simply defeats the aim of distributing news. However, the changes of journalism has now given ordinary citizens a chance to report thier version of events; with unfiltered footage also being shared.

    The situation can easily make one a hyprocrite, it all falls on the preference of Journalism remaining as the key communicator or the voices that many people living in supressive regimes have shared.

    x

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