Social Media and Journalistic Independence
In Media Independence: Working with Freedom or Working for Free?, edited by James Bennett & Niki Strange. 182-201. London: Routledge. 2014
21 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2014
Date Written: December 2, 2014
Over the past years, social media and its users have become central actors in the production and dissemination of news. Various prominent media and journalism scholars have argued that this entails a democratization of the news process and can enhance independent journalism. This chapter enters into a critical dialogue with this popular idea. It argues that the rise of social media not only means that citizens play a larger role in the making and circulation of news, but that the particular mechanisms introduced by social media in the news process simultaneously undermine journalistic independence.
The chapter starts by discussing why journalistic independence is considered a crucial element in the conceptualization of news media as democratic institutions, and how political and commercial pressures threaten this independence. Subsequently, we critically interrogate the idea that social media can relieve these pressures and facilitate independent journalism. We show that this idea is based on the widely held assumption that social media constitute neutral communication platforms, which allow its users, as well as journalists and news organizations, to develop innovative news practices. These media are, however, far from neutral. Social media’s particular socio-technical mechanisms very much steer user and professional news practices.
First, instead of merely connecting users with news content shared by friends, social media select and prioritize content by algorithmically translating user activity into ‘most relevant’ or ‘trending’ topics. As such, the news oriented algorithms of the major platforms privilege breaking news stories in order to trigger user engagement and boost social traffic. Such a heavy predilection towards breaking and engaging news does not bode well for the dissemination of news content on complex political issues that play out over longer periods of time. Second, social media greatly contribute to the quantification of audiences and content. The wealth of user data produced through social media allows the news industry to precisely determine the demographic composition and real-time news interests of users in order to target them more precisely. Such metrics-driven news production potentially pressures journalists to cater to the interests and preferences of audiences instead of focusing on issues of general public concern.
Our analysis shows that social media metrics and sorting mechanisms effectively compromises journalistic independence, as both traditional newspapers and born-digital newsrooms are orienting their daily operations towards these algorithms and data. By selecting ‘sharable’ content, focusing resources on real-time forms of journalism, and by organizing news production around trending topics, news organizations are effectively retooling their selection mechanisms to fit social media algorithms. In this respect, the news process is shifting from an editorial logic to an algorithmic logic, bringing with it new forms of dependency, and, consequently, compromising journalism’s ability to function as the Fourth Estate.
Keywords: social media, journalism, civic journalism, fourth estate, Huffington Post, LA Times, NY Times,
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