Defining the Roles of Traditional vs Social Media

Jonathan Bernstein communications, crisis communications, crisis management, ethics, Facebook, fact checking, Jonathan Bernstein, public relations, reputation management, social media, Twitter 7 Comments

Social media’s role should be to bring information to us quickly.  Traditional media’s role should be to bring information to us accurately.

That distinction came to mind recently after I witnessed the horrendously inaccurate traditional media reporting about the Boston Marathon bombing, which was often fed by an apparent desire to keep up with social media rumors.

Chris Martin of The Poynter Institute, which trains traditional journalists on ethics, had this to say about news reporting from Boston:

“No one remembers who got this story first. They only remember who got it wrong.”

Sadly, newsrooms mired in traditions of the 20th Century are focused on avoiding being “scooped” and, in so doing, are no longer taking the time to fact-check properly.  Ignoring the reality that they can’t have it both ways – and hence the need for a definitive distinction between their role and the role of social media.

And while I can talk all day from my bully pulpit, the only way the public will ever clearly understand that distinction is if social media influencers and highly respected traditional journalists (a) buy into the idea and (b) start walking that talk.

Journalists, in particular, need to stop putting speed before fact-checking.  They need to return to making credibility their most important asset.  In today’s world, a Walter Cronkite could not exist as a credible source, because he would be fed unverified information on a regular basis, information that would come back to bite him.  And that’s just sad.

Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist and craigconnects and a strong supporter of the work of Poynter and others involved with improving journalistic ethics, is fond of saying “I want news I can trust again.”

Me too, Craig, me too.

Jonathan Bernstein
Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.

[Author’s Postscript: On a contracted basis, I am the Project Director for craigconnects, hence my knowledge of Craig’s involvement with this topic.  However, this blog post comes from my experience and my heart – it is not part of my responsibilities for this client.]

Comments 7

  1. Benjamin

    Well said. The problem we are seeing today, is that some news organizations are treating their traditional channels like social media. The Boston Bombing is a perfect example. The temptation to use your live broadcast to trumpet unconfirmed news is tempting, but credibility isn’t worth the cost.

  2. Veronica Jones

    This post is great. I agree that we need to have a fact-checked news and credible journalism today. Sometimes social media confuses people with all the updates and news presented by the people behind.

  3. Steve Weitzman

    (Picking up on failed twitter convo, limited by 140 characters…)
    I think this sets the bar too low: social media should be accurate (too), and traditional media should provide further detail, depth, context etc. Am I to understand you’re talking about ‘social’ media as delivered by reporters from traditional, “branded” media outlets. e.g. a tweet from a CNN or NYTimes reporter? I expect accuracy from such a “news-branded” tweet, from a “journalist” more so than from a “regular person.”

    1. Post
      Jonathan Bernstein

      No, Steve, I’m talking about social media like what we’re doing right here. News media’s social media feeds should comply with the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Code, just like all other traditional media. Except, of course, most don’t!

  4. Michael Nayor

    The bottom line is that both need to be accurate and as fast as possible. However the emphasis is on speed via social media, and accuracy via traditional media. The public cuts some slack for social media, recognizing that if speed is all important, accuracy may suffer. But the public does not forgive inaccuracy from traditional media (including genuine journalist tweets) because that type of media has the time, training, responsibility, and obligation to report the facts.

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