The effects of the internet and social media websites on traditional news media are so substantial and well-known that the question “has social media impacted the way the news media works?” almost becomes a rhetorical question. Even traditional media outlets like CNN now have a Twitter, Facebook page and more, where their news can be picked up by different audiences, and the nature of the internet allows for different, improved content as well–a link to a CNN news article does not require you to be there at the right time to view that news broadcast live, but a recording of the segment can be viewed in the coming days at the user’s leisure. Here are some examples of how social media is changing the communications industry:
Social Media vs. Traditional Media
By definition, using social media changes how we consume news. Reading a news story on Twitter or Mashable is not the same as watching it on a TV news network’s live broacast, or reading it in a newspaper. Acording to numerous statistics and metrics, use of social media websites to get news is up, and radio, television and newspaper-based news is down.
As mentioned, traditional media often attempts to capitalize on social media, and is often successful, as seen in the fact that one of the first Twitter users to approach one million followers was CNN. That said, the internet and social media allows almost anyone to “report” on a story, to the point where the word “report” often just means “reading what my friend says happened on her blog”. This undermines the authority of traditional media outlets to the gain of smaller news outlets and non-news entities, like individual bloggers. This increased social interaction and communication online can help facilitate social change, as shown in the “Arab spring” protests.
Social Media: Positive and Negative Influences on Communications
- Immediate: news is reported much more quickly than before, allowing changes and responses to news stories to also occur more quickly.
- Well, it’s social: Everyone with a camera phone or a computer can contribute insight and content to an ongoing news story. And cellphones can go where traditional video cameras cannot, allowing more video evidence to be recorded in more places.
- Weakens the influence of powerful, interested parties: It’s harder to control the flow of information when it’s being distributed by so many sources. People who might seek to influence the news coverage to improve the image of a political party or corporation have a harder time doing so than they did in the past, forcing them to be more accountable to public interests in order to gain the same results.
- Briefer content. There is a lot of content on the web, so those who want to read longer articles can find them, but it’s a much smaller segment of what’s being written than what is, and used to be, printed in newspapers. Part of this can be attributed to diminishing reader attention spans in recent decades, and some of it is the nature of the business–brightly-lit screens are harder to read than paper, and a cellphone screen is smaller than a newspaper.
- Increased speed of reporting means less verification or introspection. Fewer editors are being allowed the time to think about whether or not it is a good idea to report a potentially-harmful news article, meaning that more stories are created which may be harmful to people involved in the story, or which are inaccurate.
- more ability to shape messages ourselves, searching for information that confirms our biases. With more freedom than ever to find and control what news we read, users must hold themselves to a high standard and challenge their opinions, or risk privileging content that only confirms what they already believe.
How to Use Social Media Effectively as a Corporation
Content posted on social media websites should be in line with your company’s image and direction. Don’t upload the sorts of high-energy sporting event videos that Red Bull does if you’re a fabric-dyeing company that caters largely to older women.
That means knowing your audience. Social media makes it easier than ever to collect information on your clients and user base (again, for better and for worse—better for your company, and maybe worse for them). Try to learn their behaviours, what excites and interests them, and generally what would get them to act on the information or content you give them. That is, after all, the point of producing content for a social media website: you want them to do something, and that thing is usually buying your company’s product or service. This doesn’t mean you have to directly ask them to buy your product, but it will usually mean that you have to promote it, and make the positives of your product known to the consumer, and ideally, known to the consumer in a way that is relevant to them and their lives.
The changing press-to-PR professional dynamic
Companies with products to sell are producing news content now, in an attempt to become known as “thought leaders” in their industry. This continues an ongoing process, both reminiscent and a part of the media industry change occurring since the 1980’s, whereby news organizations increasingly get bought by large media entities with many properties, such as General Electric owning NBC news (although Comcast, another company with its own interests, is buying their share of the organization). This ownership of news media organizations usually means that promoting high-quality reporting is not the focus of the overall organization (promoting journalistic integrity is likely not General Electric’s highest business priority), and incentivizes the owners to produce content on their newscasts that is uncritical of their company and other products and services. In a free market, there is nothing wrong with this, as consumers can go to other news sources to get a less biased picture of General Electric and their endeavours, and NBC may have valuable perspectives on other products and issues. Similarly, one wouldn’t go to a company’s blog to read critical perspectives of that company or their products (possibly excluding the comments section). That said, more and more content producers are themselves corporations attempting to sell us products and protect and improve their image. In other words, PR professionals increasingly are the press, and the integration of news media with corporations and corporate interests continues.
If this change where corporations are creating more news content proves anything, it’s that power is increasingly in the hands of readers, who now have their choice of what content to read online and how to interpret it. As such, it is up to internet users to think critically, and consume information intelligently, or risk having their biases control what they consume, and in some sense, what they think.