Social media apps on a phone.
Social media apps on a phone. Credit: Adem AY / Unsplash Credit: Adem AY / Unsplash

In 2022, Daniel Matthew wrote that “the art of storytelling is no longer necessary” in his opinion piece “The Role of Social Media in Journalism” published in the Journal of Mass Communication & Journalism. This was one of many sentiments he included about how journalism has been impacted by the rise of social media.

The world of journalism and the journalists who inhabit it have always had to be quick to adapt. From the creation of the printing press to putting news on the television, journalism has always risen from the ashes of every new avenue it has been introduced to. But has it met its match in social media? Some professionals seem to think so, saying social media has given rise to fake news and undeniable bias. But others, like publisher of Vox Media Melissa Bell, are recognizing that social media gives journalism a different type of strength while understanding its weaknesses.

In an article by Greg Burns, Bell said “it’s important for us to recognize how much of an impact social media has had on our reporting.” She clarified that “there are strengths in it. There are ways to reach people that you couldn’t reach before.”

While it’s important to recognize the damage that social media can have on journalistic integrity, it is equally important to understand how social media can be a positive tool for journalism to adapt and thrive in an increasingly technological world. It’s not that “storytelling is no longer necessary,” it’s that storytelling is no longer the same as it has been. It is not inherently bad, just different.

As of December 2022, Twitter had 368 million monthly active users worldwide. In 2021, there were 1.21 billion monthly active users on Meta’s Instagram. Also as of 2021, TikTok says it has one billion active global users. The numbers don’t lie. Social media is where people are.

Is journalism dying?

When you put “Is journalism dying?” in a search engine, the results are mixed. Some say it’s drying up and others say it’s only evolving. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the newspaper industry has lost more than 50 per cent of its employees since 2001. The market has effectively failed the news industry that democracy and society need. From a business standpoint, social media is both saviour and destruction. The numbers are a clear indication of where many people are spending their time nowadays: the internet. This is where the industry must meet them.

According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2021, 86 per cent of Americans consume news from digital devices. These statistics are enough to suggest that that journalism is alive and well, but consumers have just migrated. Social media can most definitely be lumped into this digital shift as a tool used by this evolving industry. 

Audiences today are increasingly accustomed to having quick access to many options of media consumption. Readers want curated news the same way their TikTok For You page is curated to their particular likes and dislikes. Gone are the days of sifting through the pages of print, at least, for young people they are. Social media and digital platforms give news outlets a way to meet these desires and capitalize off them. However, this way of looking at social media and journalism is a double-edged sword.

Shrinking attention spans

A 2019 study in Nature Communications found that the globe’s collective attention span is indeed narrowing – and social media is one of the culprits. The study shows that the amount of information that is being presented to the public gives the people more things to focus on, but often leads them to focus on such things for shorter periods of time.

The age of social media is expanding rapidly, meaning we can have exceedingly fast access to news on our phones, and we frequently receive these notifications within minutes of something happening. In other words, we get the lowdown of newsworthy events much faster and often more efficiently through social media as a medium.

Social media’s role in storytelling has taken over the media world, even society, and is becoming increasingly vital to staying in the loop about current events. The same study from the Pew Research Center mentioned earlier found that only 10 per cent of Americans surveyed get their news from print publications often. This opens the world up to a term that seems to have been bred online: ‘fake news.’

The age of ‘fake news’

Those who spread ‘fake news’ harm journalism by casting a pall of doubt on the validity of a journalist’s work. People become unclear of which article to believe on social media. An example given by Matthew is Donald Trump and his contemptible Twitter account being used to disseminate breaking news when he was US President. 

Due to social media, the news we are now exposed to has the ability to be significantly biased towards certain people or persons. Trump tweeting “I Won the Election” after effectively losing as an example. If you were to only consume election news from Twitter, you might be receiving inaccurate information, as social media encourages opinion and free speech, and doesn’t categorize ‘fake news’ as anything illegal.

This freedom to create and promote ‘fake news’ across multiple popular social media platforms without the threat of facing legal consequences makes news we consume online untrustworthy in many cases. However, once we can recognize that social media as a medium to share news must be treated with a grain of salt, we can begin to understand the positive effects that social media has on the journalism industry.

Consuming news with a healthy amount of reservation isn’t something that should be new. Even with traditional journalism, a reader must always do their due diligence in understanding the limitations of what they are seeing. Depending on the author or publication, the piece of journalism could always lack credibility. And political bias and lean in specific news outlets is certainly not a new age idea. The onus remains with the reader to decipher between what is true and what is false information regardless of whether they consumed the news in print, digital or on social media. Consuming news from a range of sources is always a good rule of thumb.

Social media has brought a whole new meaning to ‘breaking news.’ Events that would once go unnoticed or unseen can now be recorded by anyone with a phone. Whistleblowers can publicize a call-to-action with just a phone broadcast. 

Social media has changed the way news is received. Journalists can access their audience faster than ever before in journalism history and open a line of communication for feedback. Reporting is no longer a one-way conversation.

The new frontier of news

In the wake of a COVID-19 lockdown, the world has realized that much of what we do every day can be done online. It seems that all organizations will need to make the online shift to prepare for the generation of people for which digital will be the norm.

Not only can social media have positive impacts on the journalism industry and consumers, but it can also aid journalists, and maybe it has been without anyone truly realizing it. With social media and the digital world, journalists have unrestricted access to research and have the opportunity to discover connections that might not have been made traditionally. The consistent buzz of information on social media makes it a breeding ground for the spread of news.

It can be sad to think of traditional journalism and reporting as something that is coming to an end. However, with it comes the next frontier of journalism – the same way it was with the printing press and the television – except this one includes even more capabilities, interactivity and inclusivity. The end of another journalism era brings with it a sense of doom and doubt – rightfully so. An integral part of understanding social media as a tool for journalism to use to its advantage is recognizing and understanding its inherent flaws. The end is something difficult to accept but it means that a newer version can be better, stronger and more resilient.

In Katharine Viner’s essay “A mission for journalism in a time of crisis,” she writes about how society has undergone an unprecedented level of disruption that has resulted in the journalism industry losing a significant amount of trust from the people it serves, but that it is a privilege to be navigating these questions surrounding journalism to turn this moment into something better.

There is very little doubt that journalism has been affected by this lack of trust and that social media has had its hand to play in that. But social media can also aid journalists in doing what we do best to rebuild that trust. So, instead of plugging “is journalism dying?” into that search engine, try “how will we keep journalism alive?” and consider how demonizing and denouncing social media is not the answer.

Makayla Morgan

Makayla Morgan is a journalist and media professional based outside of Toronto. Having graduated from Carleton University’s journalism program, she got her start at her student newspaper as a writer,...