Rethinking How We Get Our News

It’s no secret that the internet has drastically changed the way many Americans get their news. Many newspapers have online editions, while television stations allow viewers to watch newscasts online and update headlines on their websites in real time.

One of the most interesting developments to me, however, has been the way Twitter – and, to a lesser extent, Facebook – have become the primary source of local and national news for millions of people. While the two sites promote themselves as “social networking” sites, both are in a sense hosting thousands of watercooler conversations simultaneously, and word spreads quickly.

Looking back to 2001, I can recall that on September 11th, a plane struck the first of the Twin Towers at 8:46 a.m. When my middle school finally decided to make an announcement at almost noon, each student in my 25-person algebra class was shocked. It’s hard to remember a world without Twitter and smart phones, but I guarantee you that nowadays, no news story of that magnitude would be possible to shield from a group of eighth graders for longer than a few minutes.

And journalists are catching on.  A recent New York Times article explains how a senior strategist at NPR transformed his personal Twitter account into a minute-by-minute stream of events gathered from various sources, which together created a sort of live feed centered solely on the recent developments in Egypt and Tunisia. One of the advantages the article points to is the author’s questioning of his sources; he challenges followers to tweet back with confirmations and fact-checks.

But what are the disadvantages? Obviously, anyone can write anything, and not everything will be correct. Many a rumor both true and false has gotten its start on Facebook, Twitter, or a similar site. Furthermore, 142-character “reader’s digests” of news stories can lead to limited and/or biased interpretations of stories and events.

I’m very curious to see how over the next few years, various media channels react to the social-media-as-news-outlet phenomenon. I can’t really see it ever taking over, say, the evening news or a credible newspaper as a widely accepted source, but it is certainly a trend worth keeping an eye on.

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