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Fake News and Social Media Journalism

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Sharing information and stories is something that’s been natural to humans since the very start. It is one of the ways that we distinguish ourselves from animals. For centuries the distribution of news stories has been developing in speed and convenience. Today we use a variety of platforms to communicate news to the rest of the world. With the discovery and growth of social media journalism are more instant than ever before. These changes affect the way we create, share and interpret information and they have given new power to information warfare.

Susan Zake, assistant professor at Kent State University is one of the people who applaud these developments, while Raymond Johnston, editor-in-chief of the Prague Post stands with the more critical. “Social media is changing the essential nature of how news reaches an audience, particularly younger people,” said Zake, “It speeds up the delivery of news and increasing its immediacy.” According to her, Facebook, Twitter and the use of smartphones have changed people’s behavior, “audiences demand a conversation from journalists now, instead of the old dynamic where journalists made the informed choices for their audiences and delivered them.”

Johnston believes that the types of stories have changed and lost news value, “you can’t even really call them stories in many cases – they are just a cute photo and some almost random words.” He noticed that even for bigger issues, the text is shorter. “People almost never share a 1,000-word story,” Johnston says, “as it would be rude to expect someone to actually read that much.” He agrees that it’s great that people can get news faster, but he believes that the depth is very poor.

Johnston worries that in the future news will get even shorter and eventually video will take over text. One reason is that our technology is getting smaller, “could you read an in-depth article in your Google glasses while you walked around?” he asks. Zake agrees that the speed and the abilities to capture and distribute news have improved – the spread of news is almost instantaneous. However, Zake is concerned with the accuracy of the news we read and share. “There are mistakes made in reporting too fast and without verifying information,” she said, explaining that this is a big issue in breaking stories.

Gordana Knezevic, head of the Balkan department at RFE/RL believes that “Thanks to social media and new technology we can sit at home and watch a live stream” from any place in the world, “getting the first-hand experience of events.” She agreed that the speed at which information is spread through social media is fascinating. However, she does believe that it makes a journalist’s job more complex and more important because they have a greater level of responsibility towards their audience. “How was it possible to be a journalist before Google,” Knezevic asks herself sometimes.

“Social media has totally changed the way we cover news, gather information and disseminate,” said Michael Jones, a news reporter at Observer-Reporter in Washington. He emphasized the improved outreach and a new accessibility to sources that wasn’t even possible before. Like Zake, Jones mentions that communication between journalists and readers is now involved in writing a story. Twitter and social media can act as sources and exchange platforms for information. “We are all mobile journalists who can take their own photos, email them to our editors and write from a coffee shop or the driver’s seat of a car,” said Jones. Knezevic agrees that it is now is possible to conduct interviews quickly over the phone or email, but she believes that interviews are better when done in person. “There is a body language which is important as well as spoken words,” she said.

Social media and modern technology have changed the actual creation of stories, not just their reception. Jones agrees with Zake’s concern for factual errors. They are increased with the habit of sharing posts without verification. “We have to be careful about which sources we trust,” said Jones.

Jones believes that journalism must continue to evolve to remain relevant, and newspapers can no longer depend solely on print to be profitable. His newspaper had to recently start charging their readers for their online content to avoid losing money. In addition to this, “traditional news organizations must now redefine what makes news,” said Daniel Moore, editor-in-chief of the Kent State University newspaper. As entertainment and traditional blend together it is important to pose the question, ‘Does a Twitter trend equal news?’

“Social media can create ethical pitfalls for a journalist,” said Moore who worries that if everyone is a journalist then it is harder to determine credibility. He agrees with Jones when it comes to changing the format of journalism so that it doesn’t cease to exist. Moore believes that “social media has shown incredible potential to initiate true and meaningful change throughout the world.”

As Moore pointed out, the change in social media and technology has also impacted modern politics. Information warfare has developed and is now something that countries need to be constantly wary of. Moore speaks about information warfare from a journalism perspective: “We must protect our sources and the information we collect from cyber-attacks and other technological threats that didn’t exist even 10 years ago,” he said. Flaws in modern establishments include dependence on internet and technology to function – a simple technological failure can shut down an electrical grid, bank accounts, and other critical information systems. “Information warfare can absolutely be more socially devastating than a military attack,” said Moore, “because it has the potential to impact more people.”

“Social media has helped fill the gap for traditional media in certain conflicts,” said Zake, “particularly when the journalistic community is repressed or controlled.” She believes that it makes it harder for a controlling government to use propaganda as an effective tool. Johnston doesn’t quite agree: “Anyone with access to the internet can put up a blog and claim to be an expert on what is going on,” he said, “in the past, only government officials could spin propaganda.” Johnston mentioned astroturf groups who get paid to write and say things on the internet while masquerading as concerned citizens. Zake explains that journalists can’t ethically engage in ‘warfare’, but like Johnston, she believes that it has become increasingly more difficult to know exactly who is putting out information and what their point of view is.

“If there’s a hostile government in place, it’s difficult for information alone to overpower a concerted military response,” said Zake, “but I think it can mobilize populations and empower them to make changes.” Johnston believes that information warfare can have more impact than military warfare. “A war where you send an army to kill people is an outdated model,” said Johnston, “it wasted resources, ravages potential markets and disrupts trade.” He believes that convincing people to support your cause even if it is not to their benefit is “the wave of the future”.

“I don’t think information can necessarily be used as a weapon”, opposed Jones, “but it can most definitely be used to promote political changes in countries.” He believes that it can be used to unite and mobilize people to join a single cause. “It is not unusual to see websites nowadays that have the appearance of news pages, but are really tools to push an agenda,” explains Jones. According to him, it is important for cities and countries to have a free press that is independent of the government, corporations, political factions and special interests.

According to Knezevic, a good example of information warfare is propaganda in politics. She believes that some people don’t make the necessary distinction between journalism and propaganda. She believes that “if the information offered by authorities is based on existing prejudices, it tends to demonize “others” while making one’s own ethnic group look good.” She believes that recent events have shown that, “the pen can be as dangerous as the sword.”

There is a wide range of opinions on the changes that social media have brought to journalism and the development of information warfare. Not everyone is satisfied with how journalism has developed, but there is the mutual agreement that changes must be made in order to sustain the need and use for news reporting. Due to our dependence on technology, information warfare is a growing threat to countries during times of conflict but also in everyday situations. The world keeps developing new platforms and technologies that allow readers to attain current news and information. Journalists and news organizations must adjust accordingly in order to remain not only relevant but profitable.

Suzan Kirkman Zake:

Susan Kirkman Zake is an assistant professor in Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is the former Managing Editor for Multimedia & Special Projects at the Akron Beacon Journal, where she began work as a staff photographer in 1986. Over a 20-year career, she worked as an assignment editor, picture editor, graphics editor, assistant metro editor and assistant managing editor.

She is the recipient of numerous awards for her photojournalist images, the photography, graphics and design staffs under her supervision have been recognized locally, nationally and internationally for the quality of their work. She shares in three Pulitzer Prize team awards; for coverage of the attempted takeover of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.; for A Question of Color, which examined local attitudes toward race; and for coverage of Hurricane Katrina as part of a Knight Ridder editing team working for the Biloxi Sun Herald.

Mike Jones:

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working as a multi-media staff writer at the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pennsylvania, he also has spent time at the Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginiaand Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

Gordana Knezevic:

Gordana Knezevic is the Director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. Before coming to RFE/RL in March 2007, Gordana worked as an online editor with Reuters News Agency in Canada, occasionally contributing to the Toronto Star and CBC Radio while there. Before relocating to Canada, Gordana lived in Bosnia, where she was the Deputy Editor of Oslobodjenje, the internationally recognized Sarajevo-based daily paper – which never stopped publishing during the Bosnian War. For her work there, she was honored in 1992 with the Courage in Journalism award from the Washington-based International Women’s Media Foundation. Gordana was an elected member of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Board of Directors.

Daniel Moore:

Daniel Moore has worked for the Kent State University paper The Kent Stater for four years now. He’s worked as a reporter and editor since his first semester at KSU and he will graduate next month. He had only become editor-in-chief this semester. KSU is known for having one of the best departments of School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the United States. In March, Daniel went to Helsinki on a reporting trip.

Raymond Johnston:

Raymond Johnson has been in Prague since 1996 and he worked for the Prague Post in 1997 and again starting in 2013. He also worked at Czech Business Weekly and Czech Position (Ceska Posize). Right now Raymond is the editor-in-chief of the Prague Post.

Originally printed in Youth Time Maganize.

This post was updated on June 14th, 2018: the text, as well as title and headline, may have been edited, proofread and optimized for search engines. The featured image may have been changed due to copyright or quality issues.

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