Don’t ditch journalism for social media opinions

A decent point was being clunkily made. On one of the myriad of training webinars I have watched in recent weeks, a presenter was telling the audience that people don’t watch the news any more. Her husband would tell her something he’d read on WhatsApp and she would reply that she’d read it on Facebook an hour ago.

I bristled. As a journalist this rankled. Not watch the news? Get your information solely from social media?

That’s not right. News might be defined as newly received information, something noteworthy.

But this was no way to recommend receiving vital information on which we form our opinion, I felt.

We might not click through any further than reading that titbit on a social media platform.  

We’re all suffering from an overdose of news on the same subject right now. It’s easy to turn off. Plenty of people recommend watching a television bulletin only once a day. Constantly tuning in is no good for our mental well-being, especially at present in loosened lockdown with one thing dominating the news. But we all want to be kept up with the latest, don’t we? It’s human nature to feel we’re not socially respectable if we don’t know what everyone else is talking about.

Those friends, as like-minded as they might be on the whole to you, have biases, which they add to the link – if they provide one – to the story they have found. Or they might just offer comment on something in the wind, to which they haven’t linked and you might not yet have heard about yet.

So they have already influenced your thinking, like a potential jury member seeing a newspaper’s report about something they might later have presented to them in court (they would have to declare this at that point).

We saw how this influence, this frenzy to comment, manipulated our thinking in the lead up to the last General Election: those people who are online whipped up the indignation, apparently against Brexit, apparently against a failing government. At least, they did in my timeline, as well as much of the media.

Anyone would have thought the Government was on its way out and that the Brexit impasse would continue, with every possibility the vote to leave the European Union, back in 2016, could somehow be overturned. Arguably, those thoughts had long been in the media coverage and perhaps the perceived public opinion had whipped up the journalists to frame that story, which then built into a full-circle storm.

The polls – and the election result – gave a different story to our social networks. A silent but significant portion of the population gave a different opinion to what was being presented. They did this via the polling booth (we can argue about the imperfections of our electoral system another time). The silent but significant proportion of the population, that is, who are not online to consistently badger us with their views.

There are 2.6 billion users monthly on Facebook, a good portion of the world’s 7.5 billion (and growing) population. 

The adverts, through algorithms, will reflect your interests and your internet searches, from shopping habits to everything else we look up on the master of the information universe that is Google.

Journalism cuts through that forest of information, to seek the truth. It might do it with varying degrees of success, or even bias, depending on your viewpoint and how much the owner or even editor might dictate. It is, however, supposed to be an independent resource, looking to balance out a story with more than one side, asking difficult questions and disseminating information in a way that is easy to read or audibly understand.

It checks out the rumours. Some years ago, in the weeks after Croydon and other towns were hit by looters and rioters, I read on social media how a substantial number of youths were “gathering” at the Memorial Park to cause trouble and it was all about to kick off in major style. After a feeding frenzy of views sparked through fear on this social media timeline, a person who had walked past the area reported no such trouble, or possibility of it. Just three teenagers.

A few months ago, another post suggested dog walkers should avoid a particular part of woodlands locally because “three dogs have been deliberately poisoned and taken to the vets by something left there as they are anti dogs”. When I mentioned this to a dog walking friend, he said this was utter nonsense. And he’d heard that too. He added that one dog had suffered a poisoning incident because it had eaten some foliage it shouldn’t have done.

The lessons here are to check out the news, find a recognised source, which you can intelligently assess to be reliable and uncluttered by its own opinions, and go from there, to the more in-depth stories if you wish to know more. This could be a general news source, plus those from your social groups, or an industry magazine relevant to your business. It’s easy to differentiate the columnist with opinions or to acknowledge that the outlet might have its own slant, generally. And don’t overdose, especially during the Covid-19 crisis. If it is television or radio news, for example, treat it like you are on a diet: listen at the same time each day and be consistent, as you would when weighing yourself.

However, don’t jettison the updates from informed, trained sources in favour of being dominated by updates on social media where opinions are easy to form, but “horses mouth” facts are easy to ignore and harder to pick out.