The news also ben­e­fits from so­cial me­dia

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Chuck Plunkett

Of late in these pages we’ve of­fered semireg­u­lar themed edi­tions that go be­yond our nor­mal pre­sen­ta­tion of sev­eral top­i­cal sub­jects.

This Sun­day we fo­cus on so­cial me­dia’s im­pact on pol­i­tics and pub­lic pol­icy. The ra­tio­nale should be straight­for­ward enough. As Trump rose to power with his Twit­ter ac­count in tow, we’ve seen a haunt­ingly fresh ex­am­ple of how pow­er­ful a com­mu­ni­ca­tions tool it can be. And how dan­ger­ous. The abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate in­stantly to the world can, es­pe­cially for high-pro­file users, eas­ily turn into a wiz­ard’s wand that back­fires spec­tac­u­larly when poorly em­ployed.

Go­ing into this week’s

column, I thought I would go neg­a­tive and rank our cul­ture’s present use of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions tool as a huge dis­ap­point­ment.

Cer­tainly I would have been on solid ground. But the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t want to fo­cus on the neg­a­tive in this space. Other items in the pack­age do a good job of that al­ready.

And the truth is, since the be­gin­ning of lan­guage, we’ve al­ways known that what we do with our speech, through what­ever medium, can be and of­ten is used for sub­terfuge, co­er­cion, ma­nip­u­la­tion or ly­ing.

One of the first sto­ries many of us learned is that of a cou­ple of hu­man be­ings lied to God, and He cursed us all. No, I don’t be­lieve the story. But I like how the metaphor helps ex­plain that we’ve been deal­ing with ill com­mu­ni­ca­tion since the first homo sapi­ens de­vel­oped the abil­ity for ab­stract thought.

Which is one of the rea­sons we have jour­nal­ism in the first place. Granted. But for all its messi­ness and dis­ap­point­ment, so­cial me­dia has and con­tin­ues to im­prove what it is we do as jour­nal­ists. Here are a few ex­am­ples.

• When users are on their game, they keep jour­nal­ists on theirs. So­cial me­dia de­stroys the abil­ity of news or­ga­ni­za­tions to sit on sto­ries. If some­thing is go­ing on in your com­mu­nity, and the lo­cal press is ig­nor­ing it, or some­how un­aware of it or its sig­nif­i­cance, users of so­cial me­dia and their fol­low­ers can quickly gen­er­ate at­ten­tion in myr­iad ways. Com­pe­ti­tion is good for us, and im­proves what we of­fer con­sumers of the news.

Yes, the ob­ser­va­tion cuts both ways. If a news­room digs into a story and finds it flimsy or goofy in a le­git­i­mate way, ac­tivist users of so­cial me­dia can, and too of­ten do, cre­ate enough heat to make ed­i­tors blink and go with the BS.

• The ben­e­fit jour­nal­ists get in see­ing so many view­points and so many pre­sen­ta­tions of events from so many an­gles is price­less. Whether watch­ing de­bates, track­ing a bill or wonder­ing how a Con­gres­sional hear­ing is go­ing, users’ in­sights en­rich the cov­er­age.

• Jour­nal­ists are able to so­licit in­for­ma­tion from vastly more peo­ple than do­ing it the old way, mak­ing the job of get­ting the pulse of the com­mu­nity or re­gion or na­tion on any given sub­ject or event vastly more in­for­ma­tive and richer.

• So­cial me­dia sites make it pos­si­ble to learn from ex­perts in ways ex­po­nen­tially faster than work­ing the phones and shoe-leather re­port­ing ever did. I’ll never for­get the ex­cite­ment upon learn­ing this early in my use of Face­book. I had posted a blog, and soon enough found my­self en­gaged in a vir­tual chat with a hand­ful of ex­perts on the sub­ject. In less than 30 min­utes I learned what it would have taken me a day to re­port out work­ing the phones.

Yes, the op­por­tu­nity is of­ten spoiled by trolls. An­other prob­lem, as so­cial me­dia be­came ubiq­ui­tous, it be­came al­most im­pos­si­ble to keep up with com­menters dur­ing the course of a busy work day. But we’ve learned how to skim any­more. Some days, it’s like that Tweet­Deck feed on the op­po­site screen be­comes some­thing that in­forms through os­mo­sis. No, that’s not deep think­ing, but it pro­vides im­por­tant clues needed to en­gage in se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion of is­sues.

• So­cial me­dia holds us ac­count­able. If you get it wrong, or only half­way right, you’ll hear about it, and the world will see.

For all its neg­a­tives, there are likely many more pos­i­tives. For those sin­cerely seek­ing the truth, the wealth of view­points and ex­per­tise and on-the-ground knowl­edge avail­able is like noth­ing we as so­cial be­ings have ever seen.

We’ve been given an awe­some gift. The trick is us­ing wisely.

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