The following editorial is written by Al Cross, journalism professor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky. He was a weekly editor and manager, a political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal, and president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
I love social media.
They keep me in touch with dozens of friends, who I might otherwise have contact with only every few years, or every few decades.
They allow me to share articles that I believe provide a better understanding of a topic, usually with a comment from me, and benefit from similar sharing by others.
They have allowed me to share my own writing, to reach a wider audience than when I worked for newspapers, and to participate in national and even international conversations.
I hate social networks.
They have become the default news sources for most Americans, and major sources of disinformation – even misinformation – that polarizes the country and pushes us into media echo chambers.
They have added to the confusion between facts and opinions, and to our natural desire for information that confirms what we believe, rather than information that might challenge those beliefs.
They have led Americans to spend more time online in virtual communities instead of the geographic communities where we live, paying taxes and electing local leaders.
My love-hate relationship with social media stems mainly from the fact that I am a journalist who believes that freedom of information is essential to our democratic republic, and who has done most of my journalism for newspapers – which are the main investigators in our society.
Newspapers are finding it harder to perform this essential function, mainly because a large part of their audience and more of their advertisers now prefer social media.
Newspapers have as many readers as before, but the audience is mostly online and reached through social media posts that bring them no revenue. There is a bill in Congress to address this issue, called the Journalism Preservation Act, but what the news media also needs is more citizens who appreciate and support their work.
Newspapers are not only the primary investigators for citizens; they are institutions that speak truth to power and hold it accountable. That’s why our founders enshrined the First Amendment in the Constitution, to guarantee freedom of speech, press, petition, assembly, and religion.
Freedom of the press demands certain responsibilities from those who exercise it. Too many citizens fail to realize that journalists have a generally accepted set of ethics and that journalism is a collective enterprise, with editors and other colleagues helping each other to deliver a fair report.
My favorite description of how journalism is supposed to be practiced is in Elements of Journalism, a book by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. They list 10 items; here are the first five, which are the most basic:
- The first duty of journalism is to truth.
- His first loyalty is to citizens.
- Its essence is a discipline of verification.
- Its practitioners must maintain a independence of those they cover.
- He must serve as an independent power monitor.
The item I quote most often these days is #3, about the discipline of verification. It means we tell readers how we know something, or attribute it to someone.
Social media has no discipline and no verification.
And these are mostly opinions, not facts.
Journalism, especially in newspapers, is mostly about facts, not opinions.
Opinions are the heart of a democracy, but they must be based on facts. And for the facts, we need newspapers.