The term “social media” refers to platforms that allow users to create a public profile, develop lists of connections (e.g., friends), traverse those connections by viewing others’ profiles and public messages, and add short posts of their own to the network (which may include text, images, videos, and links to things like news stories).
While those platforms were not designed with journalism in mind, they became an important part of journalism starting in the 2010s and are now routinely factored into journalistic work. Journalists use social media to gauge public interest and sentiment, keep tabs on the competition, identify story ideas, find and verify sources, and promote and distribute their work. It has become so central to many journalists’ day-to-day activities that many journalistic outlets now have social media policies to guide journalists on how to appropriately use social media (and deal with some of the challenges it introduces).
While journalists have long looked to their friends and peers for story ideas and validation, they now increasingly turn to social media for those things. Journalists listen to the general public primarily through the use of hashtags and indicators of popularity (e.g., trending topics on Twitter). They also engage directly with particular members of the public by replying to social media messages they come across and through replies to comments they receive themselves.
While journalists have been critiqued for employing a pack mentality well before the popularization of social media, researchers have repeatedly found that journalists interact primarily with other journalists on social media. This has led to critiques that social media has intensified professional insularity. That is, they may be increasingly operating within echo chambers of their own. Additionally, it is now easier for journalists to see what their peers are up to (and which behaviors are being socially rewarded among their peer group), and follow the pack leaders (i.e., the most influential journalists). This is driven, at least in part, by a desire to reduce professional uncertainty. For example, journalists often look to signals from their peers to validate their belief that the topic for their story (or story idea) is indeed newsworthy.
News consumers and journalists are not the only people on social media, though. The sources that journalists frequently turn to may use social media themselves (and often do so in strategic ways). Journalists, especially those who work a consistent beat, develop extensive lists of sources that they follow closely on social media. They not only read the sources’ posts to learn new information for a story but also selectively disseminate (e.g., retweet) the juiciest information, such as an injury update from a star basketball player herself. In doing so, journalists who are active on social media take on an additional role: that of a curator of online information. Researchers have also found that journalists routinely turn to social media for “person on the street” reactions, often embedding tweets and Instagram posts in their stories as examples of the public’s reaction to a development. This is, in many ways, a continuation of traditional journalistic practice that simply leverages a new tool.
Nearly all major news events today are live-tweeted or live-blogged in some capacity. Those terms refer to a relatively new practice of constantly posting short bits of developing information on a social media stream in real time during a news event, such as a press conference. That practice has become so ingrained for some journalists that they now take notes in the form of short social media updates (e.g., tweets).
Most U.S. journalists today use Facebook and Twitter to conduct research for their stories. Journalists also use these platforms to request help in verifying information, such as by asking native speakers to help translate information, having locals visit the site where an incident allegedly took place, or having experts double-check complex or specialized information. For example, David Fahrenthold, a reporter for The Washington Post, won a Pulitzer Prize for his Twitter-assisted coverage of Donald Trump’s claims of charitable givings. Fahrenthold periodically posted on Twitter lists of dozens of charities he intended to contact, and solicited help from his followers for finding people who could confirm or deny that Trump had donated to those organizations. After four months of work and countless tips from his followers, Fahrenthold found only one charity confirming that Trump personally donated to them over an eight-year period.
Social media have become central to journalists’ growing efforts to develop personal brands. As journalists have become more entrepreneurial — driven in part by economic uncertainty within the journalism industry — they have used their social media profiles as billboards for their work. This does not simply mean posting their stories on social media. It also means highlighting their credentials, training, and expertise in order to appear more authoritative.
Audiences don’t just crave professional, authoritative work, though. They also value authenticity and connection. To that end, journalists now increasingly mix professional and personal information as part of their personal branding efforts — part of a phenomenon called context collapse. For example, many journalists will offer more commentary online than they do in their news stories. Additionally, journalists may post pictures of personal activities, such as attending a sporting event as a fan or playing with their dog. As audiences feel a stronger sense of connection with particular journalists, they become more loyal followers. That, in turn, increases the journalist’s perceived value and reach, which can be translated into better job offers and higher salary — or just greater potential impact for their work.
The blending of personal and professional affairs on social media has presented challenges to both individual journalists and their employers. While some journalistic outlets require their journalists to maintain a presence on social media (and some even stipulate a minimum number of social media posts and interactions per week), they also frequently employ social media guidelines that limit what those journalists can do on those platforms. This often puts journalists in a bind. If they act too professional or scripted, their personal brand may suffer from a perceived lack of authenticity. However, if they are too lax and casual, they risk being disciplined by their employer.
Attempts to build a following on social media can also backfire for journalists. An attempt at humor may be ill-received, for example, resulting in intense backlash from followers. Additionally, the pseudo-permanence of online postings means that commentary from years earlier — such as criticism of a source or public official — can come back to haunt a journalist, or be used as a weapon by critics to discredit that journalist. This is the case not only for journalists who specialize in objective journalism but also professional columnists and editors at lifestyle-oriented outlets. For example, in 2021, Alexi McCammond was forced to resign as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue shortly after being promoted to the position when flippant tweets posted a decade earlier that espoused offensive stereotypes about Asian people resurfaced online.
Can journalists advocate for social justice causes on social media? Can they use hashtags to participate in protest movements? Can they publicly admonish or defend alleged wrongdoers? The answers to these kinds of questions often depends on the journalistic outlet the journalist works for and the specific issue in question.
For example, The New York Times’ in-house social media guidelines includes this cautionary clause: “Social media presents potential risks for The Times. If our journalists are perceived as biased or if they engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom.” The Washington Post’s social media policy includes a more direct prohibition: “Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything — including photographs or video — that could objectively be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism.” While these guidelines are not always strictly enforced, they do shape journalistic behaviors.
Journalistic social media guidelines aren’t always explicit, though. The reality of social media interactions today leaves plenty of room for interpretation (and accidental violation) of different journalistic norms, many of which have changed considerably in recent years. This includes the ways in which journalists share details about their reporting or how they should engage with audiences who critique their work. For example, social media often serve as the primary sites of toxic digital attacks against journalists (especially female journalists and journalists of color) and their sources. That online harassment can have severe consequences for their emotional and mental health. Social media can also tempt journalists to get sucked into online arguments with users who disagree with them, resulting in unproductive and alienating debates. In short, journalists today must navigate an ethical landscape that is arguably more complex than in previous times.
Social media are now routinely factored into news production. Journalists use social media to gauge public interest and sentiment, keep tabs on the competition, identify story ideas, find and verify sources, and promote and distribute their work.
Social media have enabled a new role for many journalists: that of a curator of online information. Many of today’s news events are live-tweeted or live-blogged in some capacity.
Social media have become central to journalists’ growing efforts to develop personal brands. This often results in clashes with those journalists’ employers, who advocate more professional social media use via their social media guidelines.