Is social media a friend or foe?

By Alexis Tatum

Social media is a powerful tool that has made information available at the tips of our fingers, but experts worry about how social media is impacting news engagement.

“The shorthand answer would be yes [news media will survive social media], but, there’s a lot of work to be done” according to Keven Ann Willey, vice president and editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News.

Willey spoke at the Belo Center for New Media as a panelist in the annual Denius Symposium on News Integrity. The Denius Symposium is an annual event to stir conversation in the media about ethical values in the press. This year’s conversation was heavily influenced by the presence of social media as a news medium.

“One of the big problems we have in the business of social media is the separation of corporate goals and the journalism,” said Nancy Barnes, the editor and executive vice president of the Houston Chronicle. “It really concerns me when these social media organizations consider themselves a platform, but don’t vet the information they produce. Anyone can post anything.”

The problem referenced by Barnes has been theorized as a major contributor to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Experts and citizens alike have speculated that the fake news circulated through social networks led many voters to believe false information about candidates, policy action, and other critical factors.

“If everybody and anybody can post information equally and consumers don’t know how to discern, I think that is a tremendous threat to democracy,” said Barnes.

Still, a large number of people rely on social media as a source of news. A recent survey of 169 UT students revealed that 31% of students primarily use a social medium, like Facebook or Twitter, to engage the news. About 77.5% of students reported that their smartphones were their primary resource for news consumption.

“It’s just easier,” said Anthony Douglass, a Government and Plan II Honors major. Douglass is an avid consumer of news on many platforms, but he normally engages the news from news applications on his iPhone. “As a new college student, I don’t have the time to sit down and watch TV anymore. It’s a lot easier to listen to podcasts while I’m walking to class or check my phone throughout the day,” Douglass said.

Hannah Jarzombek, a senior English major, also enjoys the ease of getting news online and on social sites.

“Sometimes I’ll just go to Facebook and look through what’s trending or what a news page has published,” Jarzombek said. “I’m not really particular to any specific kind of news.”

The necessity for easily accessible news became a priority to a large number of millennials

following the 2016 presidential election. The reasons for the increase in news consumption vary from an unprecedented presidency to simply figuring out what is true and what is false, according to UT students.

“After the 2016 election, I became more active in my news engagement,” Jarzombek said. “It became more important to understand what to expect of a Trump presidency.”

Jarzombek is among a number of millennials that have increasingly engaged with more news since the 2016 presidential election, according to News Engagement Day creator, Paula Poindexter.

While the uptick in news engagement is heartening, it is still tricky, said Poindexter. Poindexter addressed a Reporting Words class on annual News Engagement Day, the second Tuesday of October.

“Every generation has its own unique experiences that apply in discussions about news,” said Poindexter. “Millennials have engaged the news poorly until Facebook. Facebook emerged and embraced millennials, it informed them, it catered to them. The press failed to do that.”

Poindexter addressed the growing concern of President Donald Trump’s Twitter presence and the significance of discrediting the news from such an important platform.

“I am saddened by animosity towards the press. I am sadden by the fact that the credibility of the press is at a historic low, and I am particularly saddened by the president… calling the press the enemy of the people,” Poindexter said. “Without the press, we are in trouble. It is in the best interest of all of us.”

Consumers can avoid the problems of news from social media by taking the time to verify their sources. Debunking the myths of paid news propaganda or clickbait stories makes the difference in how news is consumed in the online world, according to Poindexter.

“I think it just goes back to the idea of gatekeepers and how important they are,” Sternlicht said. “I think it’s great that we walk around with these little computers in our pockets that can give us all the information in the world, but we have to know what to do with it. Nowadays, you have to be your own gatekeeper.”

News from the J310 Reporting Words Lab at @UTAustin