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Empty Newspaper Boxes: The Problem With Social Media in Democracy

4 Aug

Is social media important to democracy?

Well yes, of course. But like with most issues, I would add some caveats to the idea that it is purely a positive impact.

Look at the last U.S. election, in which Barack Obama’s savvy use of social media may have won him the presidency. (Well, in addition to the advancement of Sarah Palin as the Republican VP candidate.) Take a look at the New York Times article, “How Obama Tapped Into Social Networks’ Power,” in which the reporter describes Obama’s campaign as such:

“Like a lot of Web innovators, the Obama campaign did not invent anything completely new. Instead, by bolting together social networking applications under the banner of a movement, they created an unforeseen force to raise money, organize locally, fight smear campaigns and get out the vote that helped them topple the Clinton machine and then John McCain and the Republicans.”

I think most people will agree that social media can and will be an incredibly powerful political tool in the future, however, when it comes to journalism and the institution’s role in democracy, social media may be hindering more than helping. I come from a journalism background, so I’m definitely biased when I say social media is wreaking havoc on traditional forms of democratic coverage. I won’t go into here how the journalism model is changing and how social media (aka blogs, tweets, and a lot of other amateur “journalism”) is distracting readership and advertisers away from trained professionals (aka the “fourth estate). We all know that is happening and I’m sure have some familiarization of how and why.

I’m concerned that “civic media,” while offering many positives, is taking away from the kind of journalism that once delivered such in-depth stories as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, as well as quality local news and replacing it with editorial disguised as “news.”

One new endeavor, the Toronto-based online news source called Open File, seems to be a happy merging of civic-amateur and professionally trained journalists. It’s “About” page describes the site as this: “OpenFile is a collaborative local news site. Stories are suggested by readers, selected by editors and investigated by professional journalists. We are an independent online newsgathering organization dedicated to local journalism. OpenFile’s journalists and editors research, write, and share stories that matter to Torontonians. We embrace a collaborative approach to news by encouraging members of the community to participate in the editorial and reporting processes, thereby helping us expand the depth and breadth of the conversation.”

Check it out…I’m hoping the future of journalism can look something more like this, rather than the empty newspaper machines that dot many small communities’ streets these days.

(Image courtesy of