Journalism’s impact: Is it becoming less than that of social media? #jcarn

By Steve Outing

It’s that time of month again: Carnival of Journalism! And this month’s question (a tough one, by Greg Linch) is: “What’s the best way, or ways, to measure journalism and how?” … To define it a little better, the real question is: How do we best measure the impact of journalism.

OK, it’s going to take someone smarter than me to give a good direct answer to that. I’m sure one or more of my fellow Carnival-goers will rise to the challenge.

When I look at the question, I can’t help but get sidetracked into thinking how social media (i.e., “the crowd” utilizing digital social tools like Twitter, Facebook, and, among others, to amplify their voices) in a growing number of cases is having more impact than the traditional news media can achieve themselves — or is driving the mainstream news media to pay attention to stories that their editors fail to recognize as important.

It’s the public leveraging social media that keeps taking hold of stories where professional journalists either misjudge the importance or just miss because of lack of resources, and then amplify those stories to the point where mainstream news organizations have no choice but to pump up their coverage (and thus look “out to lunch” to those already aware of the story from the social-media uproar). […article continues below the video]

Twitter’s Twitter Stories website features stories of tweets that made an impact, such as this tale of a son’s tweet that saved his mother’s Portland bookstore from going out of business. In the past, perhaps a newspaper reporter’s story on the store’s plight would have generated the community support to achieve the same result.

The way I see it, traditional news organizations are seeing their “gatekeeper” roles usurped increasingly more often by the public’s use of social media. In other words, when editors do a lousy job of gatekeeping and keep important stories locked behind the gate, the public now has the power to become the gatekeepers and unlock an overlooked story. It’s not that news media don’t have the power to have an impact; it’s that now an outraged public can use social-media tools to have an impact, sometimes bypassing the news media and sometimes manipulating news organizations to join the fight.

Here are just a few recent examples:

  • The Trayvon Martin killing in Florida. It took several weeks for news organizations to pay due attention to this racially charged incident of a neighborhood watch volunteer shooting an unarmed black teenager; initial news reports treated it as a routine crime story. The story truly picked up thanks to a petition on, which as I write this has gathered 1.75 million signatures asking for prosecution of Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, who was not arrested. At, Kelly McBride has a good write-up about the Martin case and how social media drove the news media coverage to eventually turn it into a national story: “Trayvon Martin story reveals new tools of media power, justice.”
  • The Susan B. Komen Foundation dropping Planned Parenthood funding. Komen, the breast-cancer charity famous for its “Komen Walks for the Cure,” succumbed to right-wing pressure to stop giving funds to Planned Parenthood for breast screenings. This action created a huge firestorm on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other social-media sites. Komen officials tried to ride out the controversy, but the furor online (including online petitions and the online threats of many women who had been Komen supporters to stop giving to the foundation) forced them to overturn their decision. By the time mainstream news media were paying serious attention to the Komen story, the social-media-led furor already had made an impact; news reports merely added to the already intense pressure on the organization to back down.
  • The UC-Davis pepper-spray incident. Who can forget the university police officer pepper-spraying a line of peaceful students sitting in a line on the ground during an Occupy protest on the Davis, California, campus? I first noticed this on Twitter and began following the story there and on Facebook. I remember early on looking for coverage by mainstream news organizations, but finding very little. It took a couple days, as I recall, for this outrageous act by a law-enforcement officer to hit its stride in the traditional news media. By then, calls for the firing of the officer and the removal of UC-Davis’ chancellor were already at fever pitch across social-media channels.

This is not to suggest that news media have been neutered by social media’s power. News organizations that still have a strong investigative-journalism mission and the resources to conduct this kind of reporting can have an impact and effect change on their own. Propublica offers a great example: The non-profit news organization’s major investigation into the oil and gas industry’s practice of “fracking” and the environmental threat posed to groundwater supplies has been a four-year effort, with tangible impact.

Another example of a traditional news organization’s journalism having an impact is the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of corruption in the small city of Bell, California, for which the Times won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, and which led to corrective action and criminal prosecutions.

Of course, the LA Times’ Bell-corruption investigation points to the reason that journalism has less impact today than a few years ago, before thousands of journalists across the U.S. took buyouts or were laid off. Municipal officials’ corruption in Bell had been going on for years, but a weakened press and no strong local news organizations allowed it to continue uncovered for a good long time.

To circle back to Greg Linch’s question, we need to figure out how to measure the impact of journalism, and track how it fares in the years ahead. Measurement will be how we know that we’ve climbed out of the hole left by the departure of so many professional journalists from traditional news organizations.

But for a final word, let’s get back to social media. I think it’s fair to say that social media will continue to grow in impact, as citizens spot outrageous things (say, Rush Limbaugh calling a college student advocating for birth control to be covered by all health insurance a “slut” and “prostitute”) and use the new tools at their disposal to accomplish goals (which occurred in the Limbaugh episode when well over 100 advertisers dropped the right-wing commentator’s radio show).

For news organizations to have impact (and not just report the news), they’ll need to get better at leveraging social media and incorporating it into the news process. For instance, if more newsrooms had editors who monitored social media sites routinely and deeply, they wouldn’t get blind-sided by a social-media firestorm because they’d know about it already. If those editors also curated the social-media chatter around breaking news events and exploding issues, they’d be part of the process instead of laggards catching up when it becomes obvious that they need to start paying attention to a story.

Social media and traditional news media both have the capacity to impact an issue and force change. At this point in time, I’d have to say that social media is gaining the edge. But news organizations have the ability to make an impact more often, as they’ve done in the past. Will they?

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!