Social media journalism:
Changing outdated news norms or fueling a downward spiral of lazy news consumers?
People use to wake up and read the newspaper at breakfast. For many now, smartphones have instead become an integrated part of their morning informational routine, in whatever form it may take. This pivot to consuming news on handheld screens has prompted a rise in new vertical news initiatives.
Among those initiatives is social media journalism - news is produced for and consumed specifically on social media platforms. Social media news is not only produced according to traditional journalistic standards and norms but also to accommodate platforms' algorithms and affordances. Research has shown that what has traditionally been considered of journalistic news value is not what platforms’ algorithms favour. Algorithms essentially reward engagement with more visibility on users’ feeds, which means that what is favoured by the algorithm is often emotion-provoking, controversial and overwhelmingly positive content.
Social media journalism is largely obliged to fit platforms’ “affordances”, which included style and format guidelines. Video, for example, is known to be the most-valued format by Facebook’s algorithm, especially vertical, graphic and punchy content. "Punchy" means frontloading the most shocking and attention-drawing elements to the first three seconds of a video, which is crucial to catching people’s sparse attention.
The availability of engagement metrics, a direct measure of how much users engage with content, drives social media journalism to have a much more audience-driven approach than traditional news. In turn, research has shown that news users engage the most with positive and inspiring content, so naturally, there will be more of this on social media than in traditional news with a less audience-driven editorial approach.
The question that remains is whether social media journalists can sufficiently provide users with the news they need to make adequately informed political and economic decisions needed to have a well-functioning democratic society while simultaneously playing to the tunes of platforms’ affordances and contending in the highly competitive digital news environment? Is social media journalism just another layer of journalism suited for the social media sphere, or is there ground for apprehension? With insights from interviews with eight social media journalists, this article aims to tackle this question.
GROUNDS FOR APPREHENSION?
Risk of sensationalist content
With the vast information overflow on social media, journalists are in fierce competition with not only other news providers but also entertainment, memes and content from friends and commercial outputs, forcing them to make substantial efforts to catch users' attention. Facebook, for example, encourages video-makers to place the “most compelling” information in the first three seconds to make people stay on a video rather than move on to the next one. Indeed with a decreasing attention span among the public, it is becoming increasingly hard to catch and keep people’s attention. With three decisive seconds to lure audiences in, social media newsmakers find themselves needing to be creative in getting people to listen, which is a thin line between catching people’s attention and sensationalising:
“There is a risk - it is kind of THE risk that we've run - of being scandalous because we have so many studies about the attention span of people, what we need to do and unfortunately that is very challenging and we are forced to have very kind of animated and fast-paced content that wasn't really necessary before,” said a 25-year ENTR social media journalist.
In her first week of working for the social media-native media, Brut, a 23-year-old journalist was tasked with making a video of the American recognition of the Armenian genocide.
“My editor insisted that I start the video with Kim Kardashian. As in Armenian, and I think arguably also as a journalist, I didn't think that necessarily Kim Kardashian was the way to start a video about the Armenian genocide. I didn’t think that was the way that the community of Armenians would want me to start that piece necessarily. But my editor had to remind me that this is what works. This is what the larger amount of people want, this is what's going to get us clicks, and I mean, sure enough, it did.”
Disincentive to long-format, nuanced and analytical content
Admittedly, there are always exceptions to the rule but social media platforms are not generally incentives for long-format, nuanced and analytical content. For example, videos’ on Twitter are limited to 2 minutes and 20 seconds, while Facebook itself recommends video-makers to “keep it short”. Arguably, adequately providing context, representing all sides of a story or giving an in-depth analysis of complex stories is difficult under this pretext. However, a social media journalist at EURONEWS explained that character and space limits have both positive and negative consequences on his reporting:
“It definitely does have a negative impact, but it also has a positive impact because in a way it's kind of good to really condense the information and make sure people just have the like the bare information they need to know, but very often with complex stories you do also need some more context and so it is a bit difficult come to do that when like you say you have a limited character or a limited amount of time in a video or limited thread length or something.”
Easy, entertaining content that finds you
Social media journalists said they create news that is more light-hearted and entertaining than what they see their traditional journalistic counterparts do. Indeed, this is backed by research which has found that social media news is more entertaining and contains fewer stories about politics and economics. On top of that, people who rely on social media for news, are less actively searching for news to consume, causing them to be less interested in and knowledgeable about politics and current affairs.
A social media journalist at the digital-native media, ENTR, specifically explained how she underwent a constant editorial dilemma of providing users with the content she perceived they wanted and what she deemed in the public interest:
“Its snappy content, highly animated and graphic-heavy content. You have to make things easy for people, you basically have to have things chewed for them and it's hard… You have to kind of find your way around that without losing your journalistic integrity.”
News dictated by trends, buzz and engagement metrics
In order to make it in the highly competitive information environment, social media journalists often choose and search for story ideas according to what is trending on platforms. While these trending topics can admittedly be of social importance, like the #Metoo or #BlackLivesMatter movements, often what makes it to platforms’ trending lists are slighting controversial or polemic topics, or at least not always necessarily those of great social importance, as a social media journalist at FRANCE 3 said:
“Just because something important on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook doesn't mean that is important in real life. I think that can be very dangerous. Let's say that you're talking about housing reform which is extremely important for vulnerable communities, this is not going to create millions of likes because it's very complicated. Versus if Donald Trump called someone an insulting name which is going to get millions of likes and then instead of talking about housing reform, everyone is going to talk about like what Donald Trump said on Twitter.”
OR A MUCH-NEEDED NEW BRANCH OF JOURNALISM?
Emancipation from unrelatable, stiff conventional norms
So while popularising can contribute to dumbing down and sensationalising content, the process also has positive aspects. Social media journalists said that popularisation partly stemmed from social media journalism’s need to purposely be different from traditional and conventional journalism. With a continuous crisis of trust in the media and a significant proportion of people, especially young and less educated, purposely avoiding the news because it’s hard to understand or follow, social media journalism could be a necessary breath of fresh air into old habits that are disconnected from the public.
“Any means of creating or transmitting legitimate information in the world where we currently live is valid because there are plenty of people who do not feel concerned by the news. So if a little funny TikTok account will make people know what's happening in the world, then I find that to be really legitimate, even if the tone is lighter or more entertaining than traditional television news,” said a social media journalist at public service media, RFI.
In that sense, social media journalism could be a way of democratising news by reaching audiences that are otherwise unavailable to traditional news outlets accused of not serving all spectrums of society.
The positive aspect of audience-oriented news
In that vein, social media journalists can more easily gauge whether their content is appreciated by audiences, as likes, comments and shares directly tell them what audiences appreciate. Therefore, social media journalism has the unique opportunity to make content that actually matters and speaks to their audience, appropriately adapted to their needs. By engaging with users in comments and DMs, they also have the opportunity to create a much closer relationship with news consumers. A TikTok journalist believed engaging and listening to users could help bridge the current divide of distrust between the public and journalists:
“As a journalist, it's difficult because you're so into the work, you don't have that like extra set of eyes. So being able to engage with your audience and even co-creating content with your audience can really push a journalist out of their comfort zone into excel. And I think that it's also important in building trust with your audience because we all know that there's a crisis of trust in journalists among the public.”
Informing the “scroll-hole”
Social media platforms are entertainment and social platform first and foremost, so any informational content social media journalists may add to this environment may be considered a positive added value. Indeed, everyone can make commentary and provide opinions on social media, blurring the line between legitimate and illegitimate actors in terms of the dissemination of information. Therefore, social media journalists felt that they were legitimate news providers in a space of often-times groundless commentary.
“The way I see it, is that people are in these social media scroll holes of never-ending, mostly useless content, whether we like it or not. And if social media journalists aren’t adding some educative, verified and accurate information into this mix, we can be certain that anyone will?” asked a social media journalist at La Parisian.
Moralising and policing platforms
Other than just providing people with news, social media journalists also pointed out that they take an active role, and even pride in, moralising and policing often-time polemic and unregulated debates among users as well as flagging and fact-checking mis-and disinformation on platforms.
“It's kind of a moral obligation we have as social media journalists to let people know what's good news and to let them know when they are slipping into fake news or rumours,” said a FRANCE 24 social media journalist
Indeed, this aspect of social media journalism represents a significant contribution to the overall improvement of, not only the social media public sphere, but also society as a whole, as platforms are known to be the scene for unregulated fierce and hateful debates, and false information is known to circulate much faster on platforms than true information.
SO WHAT’S THE VERDICT?
While there evidently are arguments for and against, it is clear that social media journalism is here to stay despite being the home to polemic debates, illegitimate commentary and users with decreasing spans and interest in news. In any case, social media would not be a better place without social media journalism, in spite of its shortcomings. It might not always be the long-format, nuanced piece of investigatory journalism that has been considered of great social importance and excellent journalistic value, but it is nonetheless an improvement to the overall social media sphere. Any form of improvement to the social media space must count as an indirect benefit for society?