Journalism, as a profession and an industry, has been steadily evolving over time in order to meet the demands of an ever-changing public. With the advent of the internet in the late twentieth century, a world-spanning hub for nearly instantaneous communication and content-sharing, came a new way to engage with news that had previously been out of reach for the average person. In the past, journalists were able to almost fully control the dissemination of information, especially in smaller communities where international news was rare and people relied on little more than word of mouth and the daily paper to learn of important events. The modern audience, in contrast, is no longer such a passive consumer. A new generation of readers has grown up in a time when the facts surrounding an event are just a tap away, and the older population is gradually following in their children’s footsteps. This, as well as the immense popularity of social media as a platform to express opinions and engage with content producers, means that journalism has been faced with the need to adapt in order to satisfy their readers. With just under fifty percent of all adults plugged into social media (Hermida et al. 815) and sixty-two percent of Americans currently using it to access news-related content (Eckberg et al. 148), this need for change is likely to only get more pressing in the coming years. Facebook in particular has become both a widely popular social media site, as well as an influential model of what features attract and secure users in the modern day. As such, Facebook will have inevitably impacted journalism in a variety of ways, from being an invaluable model for modern journalism’s online practices to acting as a distribution point for articles and existing as a public platform for producer-consumer communication. These adaptations have worked to alter the face of journalism for better or worse, and will continue to influence how the modern news consumer and the youth of tomorrow perceive and interact with news.
The present state of journalism has become heavily intertwined with the online presence of journalists and the ongoing digitalization of news providers. Of the top twenty-five most viewed news sites in the United States, the majority had been well-known printed brands in the past (Thurman and Schifferes 775), with many further establishing themselves on Facebook via a “page” where they can provide links to their site’s published stories (Winter et al. 431-436). This move toward social media was a deliberate effort by the companies to meet the demands of an audience that would be unlikely to see the articles otherwise. Marchi described a distinct “generational shift” in news consumption, as the majority of people under the age of thirty are not subscribed to newspapers, whether digital or print, with a staggering eighty percent of younger readers unwilling to “read the news” in a traditional sense (246-247). Current trends, instead, point toward consumers using Facebook, as well as other social media sites, as their main hub for content-gathering and news-sharing, using it to filter what news they see while relying primarily on friends and family rather than news organizations to control their content consumption (Hermida et al. 815-824). This shift from scheduled publishing to user-distributed content has taken away journalists’ influence over when and how their audience accesses the news, greatly altering how journalism functions as a result. In order to maintain any sort of relevancy in this digital era, news organizations have had to let their readers “take the reins” in a sense, putting their focus and funding into encouraging article-sharing through site widgets that mirror Facebook’s, embracing audience feedback and even crowd-sourcing article ideas.
Sharing features have become a prominent addition to digital news sites in the present in direct response to the popularity of Facebook and other social media sites. Most major online news channels have added social networking functionality to their articles, offering readers the option to “reblog” an article to their Facebook page, “retweet” it to their Twitter feed, or simply publish their opinions of the story in the provided comment section (Hermida et al. 815-824). These networking features not only allow the reader to interact with articles in a way that they are more familiar with, but these features also enable journalists to approach their readers not as passive observers, but as active influencers of who will see their work.
Article comment sections hold a similar function for news sites and Facebook news reposts, existing as an easy access point for discussion about the article’s contents, as well as providing valuable feedback for the author. An interview with Stanley, a professional in the industry, detailed the necessity of modern comment options, explaining that they “…encourage conversation and community involvement, as readers can bring up points that the reporter may not have thought of or offer insight from their personal experiences.” With the opportunity to comment comes heightened reader engagement with the content, which caters to current user tastes for interactive experiences. However, this popular method of audience participation presents its own problems that can greatly influence public perception of a story and, in turn, affect the journalist in ways not possible through traditional publishing methods. Online comments, especially those in Facebook comment sections that are linked to identifiable personal accounts, are extremely susceptible to what is known as an “opinion climate,” where contrasting opinions or personal anecdotes can shift perceptions of future readers away from the article’s intended message (Winter et al. 431). Negative or contradicting comments, harassment, or even simple heated debates between commenters can diminish the perceived power of the news story, either by spreading false information without a source, polarizing the audience, or pointlessly confusing new readers. When used for good, however, comment sections can be positive and promote further research into the topic. The immediacy of comment responses as well as the ability to engage and contribute with others have been noted as important to readers, as comment sections provide exposure to diverse viewpoints that can help those unfamiliar with the subject matter form an educated opinion on the topic themselves (Marchi 246-262).
Finally, article crowd-sourcing has become an effective method of connecting journalists with their readers, and Facebook has been a predecessor as well as a major contributor to this trend. Facebook not only presents itself as a medium for journalists to come and promote their work, but also as a forum for them to ask their “plugged-in” readers various questions, find sources, seek advice on article drafts, and even interact with “opinion leaders” that hold influence over readers (Ferrucci 10). These opinion leaders are a minority of readers who are well-connected, have amassed large followings, and are excellent sources of information while acting as unofficial middlemen that help distribute content to a wider public. Journalists have come to depend on these engagement methods more as time goes on, cementing their importance in the news-writing process and permanently altering the power dynamic at play in journalism for the foreseeable future.
Distinct from its position as a foundation for many news sites’ interactive elements, Facebook has also maintained a sizable amount of influence over news distribution itself through its existence as a popular social media platform. It is widely presumed that younger audiences today are uninterested in news, potentially crippling the industry’s growth, but this could not be further from the truth. A result of social media sites like Facebook and their drive to act as a multi-functional hub for their users is that an entire generation is being exposed to news in this unique way. The “engaged youth paradigm” posits that, rather than holding young readers to a standard set for a different generation, the Facebook news-gatherer should be viewed as a jack-of-all-trades rather than a noncommittal consumer (Marchi 248). For them, and for many others who are now accustomed to social media’s high-speed, personalized news feed, journalism is important, but the agency to choose when, where, how, and to what extent the reader accesses that information is almost completely up to them. This has created an online culture where everyone has the ability to personalize their news experience, allowing overshadowed voices to speak on diverse issues, though it has also helped create a feeding ground for misinformation.
According to Eckberg, “social media and peer-to-peer technologies have democratized the news” to the extent that influence over news has been given to the public, allowing them to “make news and break news” (148-149). This statement, while highlighting the positive attributes of civilian journalism, can also represent the detrimental effects social media can have on news, particularly in regard to the subject of “fake news.” The chronic spread of malicious- and intentionally-misleading news articles on social media in recent years has cast journalism in a bad light, with controversies like those surrounding the 2016 United States presidential election leading people to mistrust online news sources. This problem is only made worse by a lack of fact-checking in social media’s instantaneous sharing mentality, supported by the fact that over half of all Facebook users that click on and share articles spend less than fifteen seconds reading what they help distribute (Burkhardt 12).
The issue of fake news is also worsened by Facebook’s filtering algorithms, which have been taken advantage of by fake news sites in a way that harms users and journalists alike. Facebook’s news feed personalization methods, also known as its “social collaborative filter,” functions well as a means of allowing user autonomy through friend recommendations, but what it offers legitimate news sites that want to connect with readers, it has also given to fake news sites (Thurman and Schifferes 780). It has been proven that these algorithms can and have been exploited, leading to a complete disruption of the modern journalist-reader relationship. As Burkhardt explained, programs known as “bots” have been built and electronically transmitted through social media, functioning as tools that artificially inflate fake news article views to promote traffic and invade Facebook friend lists to steal consumer data for their creators’ personal or political interests (12). While Facebook has begun to take steps to ban fake news sites from advertising, as well as lowering their distribution rates (Eckberg et al. 148-156), only time will tell if these incidents have created a permanent rift between users and news organizations as a result of conditioned mistrust.
Facebook, as a social media site dedicated to immersing their users in their personal interests, has left its mark on journalism. Modern journalists, whether they model their sites after its multiple interactive elements, use it to redistribute their content to a wider audience, or actively engage with readers on the platform, acknowledge that Facebook has influenced the way that they do their jobs. While there are positive and negative results that have come about because of the popularity of social media sites in news consumption, its influence on the industry cannot be denied and will likely continue to grow in strength. Whether journalists accept social media as a contributor to this change, adapting to this trend and working to overcome any issues, or refusing to and risking that inevitable fall into obscurity, is completely up to them.
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