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Most people probably think they have a pretty good idea of how “the news” works – there’s a newsroom, a team of reporters, some editorial meetings, and a bunch of journalists, editors and fact-checkers scrambling under tight deadlines to write news articles. But a lot has changed in the modern media era, thanks primarily to the role and influence of social media.
Editorial blurs with advertising
For example, social media has forever blurred the line between “editorial” and “advertising.” In the old media age, there was a clear distinction between editorial and advertising. In fact, at the most respected media organizations, there was always a Chinese Wall between the two. Editors and journalists never mixed with ad reps and sales people. But look at what’s happening today – it’s sometimes impossible to tell what’s “editorial” and what’s “advertising.” There are so many hybrids – with many of them masquerading under names like “sponsored content” – that it’s impossible to determine what’s fact and what’s fiction.
The 24/7 news cycle
Social media has also obliterated the traditional news cycle, making it much harder to fact-check and “get things right” before news is published. At one time, print newspapers published daily, print magazines published weekly or monthly, and TV news programs came on nightly at a specific time (usually around dinner time, when the whole family could huddle around the TV). But think about today’s news cycle, which is driven by Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. There is no longer a “news cycle,” just a constant stream of news. The only way for news organizations to remain relevant in this brave new world of always-on news is to call everything that happens “breaking news.” (Yes, they are “breaking” the news, but not in the way they might think.)
Viral memes and trending topics
And there are even more subtle ways that social media has changed the way news is reported, packaged and analyzed. For one, there is much more of an emphasis on viral memes, “buzz” and trending stories. How many times have you turned on the TV news only to hear a reporter lead off a story with something like, “This YouTube video has gone viral…” Or how many times do you see news organizations building entire stories around a single tweet or a single Instagram post? In the world of sports, reporters now spend far too much time scouring the social feeds of athletes and teams, looking for little tidbits and nuggets that can be transformed into “news.”
Ideology, opinion and bias
And, in many unanticipated ways, social media has helped to shine a light on bias, opinion and ideology in the media. We are now learning that every media organization has an angle, an agenda or a mission. Social media has stripped away any illusion that a news organization can remain completely, 100% unbiased. It all starts with what stories are actually reported, and continues with how those stories are reported and which guests are invited on to a show to express their views.
Just as a thought experiment: turn on CNN at night and watch it for 30 minutes, then switch over to FOX and watch it for 30 minutes. It’s almost like living in two parallel universes: one network is saying that Trump and his inner circle should be locked up and put into prison, while the other is saying that Clinton and her inner circle should be locked up and put into prison. And then every event, every tweet, and every sound bite is carefully packaged to advance that narrative.
Just a decade ago, one might have learned about “the media” in a high school civics class. But those days are long over. It’s now time to learn how “the media” really works, and the only way to do that is by taking a new type of class that’s focused on the changing social media landscape.