It’s 2011. Somehow we found ourselves in the middle of a social media revolution.
A recent article in the Journal of Sports Media1 spurred me to begin thinking more carefully about the connection of social media and the process of “professionalizing” journalism. Journalists and writers, it’s no secret, enjoy talking about journalism and writing. And, what they say about journalism as a concept is not altogether good: “clearly, at the start of the 21st century, many experienced journalists fear for the future of journalism” (p. 1).2
Generally speaking, popular effects research on the media tend to behave in a manner that posits the media as a negative entity that causes heavy users to behave differently and contrary to normal expectations. Think of Putnam’s Bowling Alone or Postman’s Technolpoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death. At the most basic level, these books argue that something is wrong and that the cause of these social ills is the mass media.
However, in none of these accounts specifically, and in the larger world of research generally, do journalists, news-makers, or the news media (aside from complaints of bias against FOX News) act as a primary culprit in turning well mannered folk into norm-upsetting hippies. It’s always entertainment media or the overuse of new technology, etc. Yet, journalists are the most forward-thinking group of media-makers discussing the process of “becoming more professional.” This is, of course, an entirely separate conversation.
The question facing all journalists is no longer “should I engage with social media,” but “how should I engage with social media.” The “revolution” of social media has forced anyone with a voice needing to be heard to adopt technologies they do not necessarily understand and adapt their message these technologies, which do not necessarily fit the journalist’s method of communication.
Engaging with social media is a casual enterprise. The first thing I did when I logged on to Facebook was accept an invitation to be in a relationship with the girl I’d been in a relationship with for a couple of months. Without knowing it, my online destiny was sealed. My relationship became a “news” item. In the world of the “news feed” professional news outlets now compete for attention among the myriad of content posted by individual users each day. In so doing, producers of content enter a realm outside of their control. At least when you print a paper or direct a television show or air a radio broadcast, you are in control of how your content looks, feels, and sounds. Publishing a website gives you a large amount of control over your users’ experiences, provided users can actually find and use your site. But Facebook, for example, renders each user, brand, news outlet, and log-on-once-a-month Larry as equals.
To become relevant in the social world, one must somehow become similar to the social world, but in a way that does not sacrifice one’s professionalism. This is no small feat. Consider how quickly you post status updates. Do you use as much effort source-, fact-, and spell-checking these updates before they go live? Have you ever had to delete a post or offer a correction to something you posted earlier? Has something you’ve posted ever split hairs within your organization while being well accepted by your audience? Does your organization have a “best practices” guide to social media?
And, questions of professionalism extend much further than merely what to post, what not to post. What I love about the Sports Media article is its focus on sourcing. Do you pull athlete quotes from Twitter and what’s the professionalism of that? Shouldn’t you be interviewing your sources for solid stories, not picking up stories from Twitter? The answer here is unclear. In fact, everything with respect to the relationship between professionalism and social media is unclear. As Reed suggests, when things begin to clear up, ” it will be up to journalists and the organizations for which they work to decide how to preserve credibility in this environment that arguably demands more of them” (p. 58).
Good luck. It’s been a difficult road to “professionalize” journalism until now. Social media is not making it any easier. But, if journalists can do what they have always done well and get ahead of the trends, they may soon be able to use the social movement to help shape what it means to be professionally social.
2 Ornebring, H. (2008). “The Two Professionalisms of Journalism: Updating Journalism Research for the 21st Century.” Proceedings from the 2008 International Communications Association Annual Meeting, Quebec, Canada.