Don’t confuse social media tools with journalism

Twitter and Facebook have opened vast new avenues for journalists from New York to Mumbai, Los Angeles to Syndey, and practically every place in between. But are we blinded by those online tools, mistaking social media savvy as a viable substitute for good old-fashioned journalism?

That question is tackled by David Skok of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. Skok compares today’s rise of social media to the early years of television, when CBS’ Edward R. Murrow set the gold standard for reporting. But although Murrow was using the tools of a nascent medium, he never compromised the journalistic principles he learned as a radio correspondent during World War II.

Skok argues that today’s journalists face the same challenge as Murrow.

We are now at another precipice in journalism: The decisions we make about news’ direction in the digital world have the potential to shape how stories will be told for decades to come. So who will be our Murrow?

The problem is that the answer may be more about “what” rather than “who.” In the digital world, the tools we use to tell the world’s stories — Twitter, Google, Facebook — control us as much as we control them. I am a digital journalist, and I’m enthusiastic about what our new platforms can provide us in terms of telling stories. But I also wonder whether we’re letting our tools define, rather than serve, the stories we tell. I wonder whether digital journalism’s Murrow won’t be a journalist, but rather a tool that journalists use.

In this age of crowdsourcing and participatory journalism — this age in which, to some degree, everyone can be a journalist — some would argue that those concerns are moot points: that we don’t need a Murrow anymore. They might say that “transparency is the new objectivity” and that it’s perfectly justifiable for the editor of a technology news site to also run a venture fund. But principles are principles only if they can withstand the changing of circumstances. And dismissing the links to our storytelling past can set digital journalism on a dangerous path.

While some endlessly chant that mantra that “eveyrone is journalist now” and see crowdsourcing as the future of the news industry, I agree with Skok: as journalists, we cannot turn our backs on the past. Social media should be used to augment reporting, not replace it.

When I was in journalism school, about a decade after the Watergate scandal briefly turned journalists into national heroes, we had a simple saying: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. That was our way of reminding ourselves that all facts had to be verified, no matter how small, because our credibility was on the line with every word in the paper. Each wrong fact, bad headline and misspelling chips away at that credibility.

What does this have to do with social media? Everything.

It’s easy for wrong facts and assertions to spread through social media. All it takes is one or two tweets to start a viral wildfire.

The problem, though, is that once those wrong facts are out there it’s difficult to correct them. As journalists, it is our responsibility to make sure what we are tweeting or posting on Facebook is as accurate as possible at the moment we post it. Sometimes it’s better to appear to be a few minutes behind a developing story than to risk your credibility.

Because, in the end, that’s what’s most important. Edward E. Murrow would like that.

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