I first received news about the tragedy in Newtown through a CNN alert in my work inbox and then turned immediately to Twitter as the story unfolded. Weeks before that, on election night, I watched my Twitter feed more closely than MSNBC or C-SPAN. And earlier in 2012 still, I sat in a restaurant in Hyde Park, Chicago, and watched as diners received news of singer Whitney Houston’s death on their mobile phones.
According to Mashable, more than 50 percent of people have received breaking news from social media rather than traditional outlets. It should come as no surprise, then, that social media is poised to overtake newspapers as a primary news source. In fact, if you are a member of the millennial generation, you are likely already turning to services like Facebook first. The Pew Research Center says adults under 30 are more likely to get their daily dose of news from social media than newspapers. TV fares a little better in comparison … for now.
This shift in news consumption habits never fails to elicit an eye-roll, plus we’re-going-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket sigh, from some folks, especially those old enough to remember when most everyone took the daily rag and tweeting was something only parakeets did. (I see you, fellow GenXers!) These sanctimonious types often proclaim social media the domain of ignorant narcissists, making their own disinterest in technology proof of an evolved character. This sort of condescension and worry is short-sighted and evinces little understanding of the way social media works, and the real pros and cons of using it.
Social media has legitimate downsides as a source of news. Fast news isn’t always accurate news. It is hard to explain complicated things within Twitter’s limit of 140 characters. Opportunities for confusion are high. These things understood, I’d like to offer five reasons to consider social media as both a news source and supplement to traditional media. (Note: I’m going to use Twitter as an example a lot, because, well, I really like Twitter.)
- Traditional media in one place: When I say that I get my news from Twitter, I don’t mean I get it from some dude tweeting as ilovetheladies55. The service actually connects me to traditional outlets and journalists, locally and nationally. For instance, on election night, Twitter allowed me to follow The New York Times and all of the major cable news outfits, plus my local news for the latest on races in my state; as well as voters still waiting in line at polling places in key battleground states.
- Immediacy: We’ve already acknowledged that the rush to be the first with news can result in misinformation (But I submit that this problem plagues traditional media as much as social media. I see you, too, Fox and CNN!) Timeliness, though, is what makes news…news. Social media allows traditional media to report things quickly. (Daily newspapers can break mid-day news that customarily wouldn’t be seen until the next morning’s edition.) But social media has also been successful in breaking stories before traditional outlets—the Egyptian uprising, the Osama bin Laden raid and the Hudson River plane crash to name a few.
- Diverse voices: Social media connects people from all over the world with disparate viewpoints and experiences, including marginalized people who are often left out of discussions in mainstream news or whose lives are too often not considered newsworthy.
- Smart analysis: “Um … what?” Say those of you who think social media is ground zero for idiocy. But I think of Twitter and Facebook as sort of virtual salons (The gathering of people for conversation type, not the “dyed, fried and laid to the side” type). If the conversation is insipid, you probably need to invite better people to your gatherings. Try following folks like Melissa Harris-Perry (@MHPShow), Oliver Willis (@owillis), Susan Rice (@AmbassadorRice), the Planned Parenthood Action Fund (@PPact) or the Crunk Feminists (@crunkfeminists) on Twitter, and then tell me what you think about the level of discourse on social media. I watch really smart people discuss really smart things on social media every day.
- Hidden gems: Social media is a great place to find good writing on your favorite issues and news. Follow writers for alternative outlets or just ask your followers for links to great stuff. Last week, I asked folks on Twitter for links to the best race analysis of the week, and someone shared this piece by Alyssa Rosenberg — smart media analysis I would have missed if not for social media.
Twitter, Facebook, Reddit — they are all valid conduits to news — as valid as any other. It’s time we all acknowledged that evolutions in news consumption habits don’t have to lead to an uninformed public.