What do social media have to do with journalism?

Although none of the most popular digital social media communities are much more than a decade old, they are the fastest-growing ways to share conversations, messages, information, images—and, yes, news—on the Internet. We're talking about everything from the digital social networks Facebook (founded in 2004) and Twitter (2006) to photosharing Instagram (launched in 2010, bought by Facebook in 2012); video-sharing YouTube (started in 2005, bought by the web search engine Google in 2006); and cross-platform smartphone messaging WhatsApp (launched in 2009, bought by Facebook in 2014).

Millions of people using social media each day discover news that is being shared by other people and by news organizations, whether they are purposefully looking for it or not. Half of those using social media surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2014 said they had shared news stories, photos, or videos at one time or another.

An example of the role and reach of social media explored by The New York Times in 2011 was the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in a US Special Forces raid in Pakistan. Rumors about it were widely shared on social media twenty minutes before confirmed reports were broadcast late at night on broadcast and cable networks—and an hour before President Obama announced it from the Oval Office. News of Obama's statement and photos people took of him speaking on their television and computer screens also filled social media.

A significant number of people also have used social media to share breaking news they are witnessing in person. In the Pew Research Center survey, 14% of social media users said they had posted their own photos of news events, while 12% said they had posted videos. Many residents of Ferguson, Missouri, for example, posted eyewitness information, photos, and videos on social media about the 2014 police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown and the protests and clashes with police afterward, helping to make it a heavily covered national story.

At the same time, journalists and their news organizations use social media regularly to monitor news developments, seek out news sources, and solicit and find information from their audiences. Perhaps most importantly, they also use social media to help distribute their journalism and attract larger digital audiences for it, as well as to measure and analyze those audiences. Many news organizations, for example, put catchy new headlines on digital versions of their stories to increase their chances of being shared on social media.

At the same time, social media have further fragmented digital traffic to news websites in what Cory Haik, then senior editor for digital news at The Washington Post, has called "the great unbundling of journalism." Digital news consumers, especially younger adults, have been increasingly clicking from social media links onto individual pieces of news organizations' journalism rather than looking at their home pages or the rest of their websites, where they may have stayed longer and consumed more content. By late 2014, Haik said, only one-third of the many millions of digital readers of Washington Post news content came directly to the home page of its news site, while one-third found individual stories through search engines like Google and Bing, and another third arrived via links on social media. And nearly all of the traffic to the newspaper's content on mobile devices, she said, came from social media and search engines.

In a relatively short time, social media have challenged search engines as the primary way news media try to reach digital audiences. Shaping stories and headlines to rank higher on search engine results—"search engine optimization"—was the first way newsrooms sought to increase digital readership. Now, finding ways to increase social media sharing of a news organization's content—"shareworthiness"—is just as important, if not more so. The dilemma for news media is weighing widespread social media sharing—"going viral"—against continuing to do journalism about serious subjects that may not be so popular.

Social media—like some blogs and news sites—also transmit misinformation, erroneous news stories, unfounded rumors, and purposeful disinformation. Some of the shared messages, photos, and videos from the chaotic 2014 street clashes in Ferguson, Missouri, for example, were unintentionally misleading about the actions of protesters and police or were misinterpreted as they were passed along on social media. In 2011, social media spread erroneous news reports that then congresswoman Gabby Giffords had died in the Tucson shopping mall shooting in which she was seriously injured. In 2013, the message-sharing site Reddit prominently posted unfounded rumors about who was responsible for the Boston Marathon terrorist bombings. The startup site Storyful (acquired in 2013 by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.), which helps client news organizations authenticate news reports and videos that appear on social media, has found many of them to be hoaxes.

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