FAQ: Social media and media freedom

More questions from a student as part of the ongoing FAQ series. This time it’s about the role of social media in ‘media freedom’, competition between social media and mainstream media, and credibility of citizen journalists…

1. What effects do you think social media, like blogs, Facebook, Twitter, have had on media freedom?

Given that media freedom is largely about the legal and political framework in which organisations operate, I’d say social media has had very little effect. An analogy would be asking what effect hammers have had on builders’ freedoms: it’s another tool which they can use, but whether they use it and how depends on what happens to them if they do.

That said, there have been a few instances where journalists have used social media to get around restrictions on their freedom. Trafigura would be the most obvious – but more broadly sometimes journalists will report on things being said on social media (which they may themselves have supplied to the blog or tweeter in question) when they might otherwise not have reported it.

2. Do you think social media should be regulated? Explain.

It already is. See my answer here.

3. Have you ever encountered self censorship either on social media or in mainstream media? What implications do you think this has on press freedom?

Everyone practices self censorship, and social media is a good illustration of that: we construct our public identity in a very particular way by choosing what we talk about and how. We even adopt different personas for different groups of people: our family, our workplace, our friends, our relationships.

There’s a lot of analysis of link sharing on social media which supports this: people sharing or ‘liking’ links and using hashtags as a way of asserting their identity, not necessarily because they have clicked on them.

They tend to share links and information which is socially safe, rather than things that might indicate their political beliefs, for example.

This does have implications in terms of the content that gets published: we know that certain content is more likely to be shared. But we also know that different content is more likely to get read – and those are the metrics that advertisers ask to see.

And of course there’s censorship in mainstream reporting: journalists don’t report on things because they don’t fit the editorial line of their employers. They are practical people: why waste time on a story they know will at best be buried on page 10, and at worst spiked?

Some might also hold on a story in order to get the promise of a better one. You need to look at the research on this.

4. Do you think there is media freedom on social media where you presently reside? Is is different or similar to that in more traditional news outlets?

In the UK? Largely, yes – although there are laws which have led to people being jailed for making jokes which have offended or been construed as threats despite widespread acknowledgement they were nothing of the sort. There is concern over the way laws are being applied in this way.

I suspect the same jokes made in a newspaper would not lead to arrest and jail sentences.

5. Do you think citizen journalists on social media should be given (more) credibility?

To answer that you’d need to define a citizen journalist, and establish what credibility that person has, on average. Good luck with that.

I think individuals have their own credibility, and, alongside any accompanying evidence, determines how any statement by that person is interpreted.

We trust people who happen to be on Twitter, Facebook, or the phone. We don’t ‘trust Twitter’, and any research that asks that question is flawed.

6. What role do you think social media has played in news reporting in the UK?

An enormous role. Journalists use it to source stories, to chase them down, to locate witnesses and experts, to verify information and the identity of individuals. To distribute stories and get reactions and suggestions for follow ups. To report live.

Pretty much every aspect of reporting, in other words.

7. Is there competition between social media and traditional media?

Facebook is sometimes described as a ‘frenemy’ – something which is both a friend (because it is a platform which brings in audiences) and an enemy (because it competes for advertising spend and could compete elsewhere). In that sense, then, yes there is competition.

But a journalism which seeks to compete with social media by not using it is like a newspaper publisher which seeks to compete with the supermarkets by not selling its newspapers there. Or to compete with the local pub by never looking for sources there. Ultimately you have to accept the role that these platforms play in your audience’s lives, and make the most of that.

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