Social media: throwing open the doors to information

The onset of social media has ended society’s dependence on conventional and traditional media ‘gatekeepers’ for access to information, allowing audiences to tap into information on their own terms.

UK lecturer, Professor Charlie Beckett.
UK lecturer, Professor Charlie Beckett.

This was the introduction of UK lecturer Professor Charlie Beckett to a lecture on social media, organised by the Strickland Foundation on Monday evening, which examined the phenomenon's effect on both society and journalism.

Beckett told a packed hall that prior to the development and proliferation of social media, audiences and publics had to rely strictly on conventional "gatekeepers", like newspapers and news broadcasters, for their news and information.

However, thanks to social media, and ancillary digital developments such as the blogosphere, audiences became empowered to the point where they could access whatever information they wanted.

The difference, Beckett argued, is that while the information always existed, social media created a bridge between audiences and the information that goes around traditional gatekeepers.

"It was already there. We just didn't know of it without our gatekeepers," said Beckett, who leads the Media and Communications department in LSE.

He pointed to game-changing milestones in the way the power of the internet and social media empowered individuals to convey information en masse, such as Julian Assange's Wikileaks project, Syrian insurgents using YouTube to disseminate information about the revolt, and school girl Martha Payne's 'school dinners' blog which provoked authorities into attempting to shut it down.

Describing social media as arguably the biggest development since the invention of Gutenberg's printing press, Beckett said that it is nevertheless having an adverse effect on newspaper advertising revenue.

Pointing to UK newspaper the Guardian, Beckett said that the manner in which the newspaper lost millions in advertising revenue over the past four years forced it to become more open in the manner in which it writes, reports, and disseminates stories.

"The Guardian is still losing money, they don't have an answer. But they are certainly coming up with many solutions such as cookery shows and even journalism courses. It also has one of the most successful UK dating sites," Beckett said.

However the Guardian is not alone in facing dropping revenue stemming from print advertising.

Beckett said that newspaper advertising revenue started dropping drastically since 2007, and while online advertising revenue started picking up, it is nowhere near matching the drops sustained in print advertising so far.

In a bid to find an answer, Beckett noted that some forward-thinking newspapers started looking to social networking sites such as Twitter to boost their online presence.

He said that while newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent have among the lowest UK print circulation, their online reach is far greater than better-established papers.

"These are the ones that will prove more sustainable in the long run, I suspect," Beckett opined.

Beckett also argued that while the onset of social media and the digital sphere undermine the revenue of established media like newspapers, at the same time it provides opportunities for journalism to report stories and events in a way that was not possible before.

He argued that technological and social developments in this regard afford journalists the opportunity to report stories cheaper and faster, broadcast them to trans-national audiences, and have access to more diverse sources.

Beckett added that journalism today has the potential to investigate deeper and interact with audiences to a greater degree, which have come to expect greater accuracy and accountability from journalists for the stories they publish.

He argued that thanks to social media, society is changing into something akin to "a glass room" where the actions of those in power are more transparent and "even if you are doing nothing wrong, not disclosing information arouses suspicion. To protect your reputation, you must engage."

He called on journalists and news organisations to re-imagine their roles in this new society, hypothesising that "if journalists are willing to share more about themselves, their interests, and how they go about their work, they would gain more trust".

He also dismissed the notion of an unbiased and infallible journalist as a myth.

"If journalists were more honest that they are time-pressured, and about the realities they face, even open to admitting being wrong, the public would have more trust and confidence in them."

Beckett said that in this new world where audiences can tap into information readily and freely without the need for conventional media "journalists are becoming more akin to information curators", connectors between those who have information, and those who want to consume it.

He noted that social media is becoming more central to newsrooms, and the more forward-looking news organisations are taking pains to integrate them in their everyday news-making processes.

"They are changing, becoming less like bastions and bringing down the drawbridges," Beckett said, pointing to news organisations adopting a more networked approach.

"Journalism is becoming more of an enabling process," Beckett said, describing the industry shift as one from manufacturing news 'products', to a 'service industry' where news organisations provide information that already exists.

Mr Beckett is right in many ways. The internet has taken over most of the Media World as we know it. We read the news online, any news from anywhere in this world. Is is fast and accurate and most of all more open. People do not have to communicate with snail mail anymore because all that can be accomplished in what is call an EMAIL. Conferences can be conducted in different countries at the same time for example using SKYPE. Yes that fantasy telephone that we used to talk about in the sixties and seventies is here and we can talk face to face like we do on SKYPE. All you need is a PC, a Laptop, an Ipad, a Tablet or even an Ipod. You can communicate with anybody you want all across the world with the internet. Grandma and Grandpa can see and talk to their Grandchildren living away in a far away land. Amazing. Third World Country citizens are finding ways to sneak those important true facts and pictures on to the West. Take the time to sign on to any Media and the news is right there in front of your eyes. And yes we are even allowed to comment on what we read and see without much repercussions. AS one famous American president said "THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE" and the internet is doing just that. Everybody should learn how to use the internet and be well informed. We are lucky enough to have all the Media Online. It gives people to get more involved and find out what is going on in their everyday lives.
Jolly good. But I'm still not getting a Facebook account.