A panel discussion on the third floor of William L. Harkness Hall Tuesday night touched on the evolving roles of social media and journalism in national news.
Hosted by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, the panel — which featured Poynter Fellows Gabrielle Bellot, a staff writer for Literary Hub, and Eunsong Kim, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego — focused on “Methodology, Power, Journalistic Accountability and Social Media.” The event drew a crowd of around 25 students and faculty, and was co-sponsored by the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and the Yale Digital Humanities Lab.
Panel organizer and visiting Yale lecturer Theresa Cowan described the discussion as “relating social media and how journalists can think about what asymmetrical vulnerabilities social media users face.”
“Indiscriminate social media content can go beyond its original intentions,” she added.
Bellot’s presentation was broad and ambitious in scope as it challenged the morality of journalism in an age of social media. The current digital landscape — in which posts intended for a small audience can quickly spread to millions of viewers — complicates the role of news outlets and journalists in responding to national events, she argued. The lines have become blurred between a journalist’s private social media account and his or her reporting responsibilities, Bellot added.
“Social media becomes a source of news, or even the news itself,” Bellot said. “We must treat social media as a potential extension of journalism.”
The danger in this, she claimed, is when people treat social media sources as legitimate news outlets. In particular, Bellot referenced “Gonzo journalism,” a style of reporting that often uses the first person and can be unreliable. Bellot went on to question the ethics of Gonzo journalism in the age of social media, especially when the distinction between Gonzo and “non-Gonzo” is murky to online viewers.
However, Bellot stressed that the complex overlap between social media and journalism — and the unreliability of both — is nothing new.
“Social media is not simply a contemporary phenomenon,” Bellot said. “The things that make up social media existed long before.”
She ended her talk by arguing that social media can be informative but should not replace our sources of accurate news.
The second panel presentation came from Kim, who addressed the significant role of “trending” topics in dictating national conversations around news. Because social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook use specialized algorithms to determine which stories are “trending,” Kim said people should be aware of why something dominates the news.
“A trend is based on a very specific definition of now and new,” Kim said. “Public discourse is mediated by privatized definitions.”
For example, Kim said, some social media algorithms diminished the prevalence of topics including Black Lives Matter and the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. She added that social media thrives on “uncompensated labor” from its users, and said that research tools used to analyze social media trends have been largely dismantled. In summary, she said that social media was “designed for one thing, utilized for another.”
In the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, many news outlets and political commentators have reflected on the potential role of social media in his ascendency. Although they never mentioned Trump directly, both panelists remarked on the importance of understanding social media and journalism after the election.
Many of the panel attendees were students in Cowan’s “Gender and Sexuality in Media and Popular Culture” class, co-taught by American Studies and WGSS professor Laura Wexler.
Andy Lopez ’18 and Julia Carnes ’17 said that Tuesday’s class was led by both Bellot and Kim.
“It was cool to be primed for this talk in our class,” Carnes said.
The Poynter Fellowship in Journalism was established in 1971.