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In the wild west of social media, journalists’ credo is “caveat emptor”

This post was written by Annette Arno, Research Director for Evaluation Services at Cision.

Gut feelings and anecdotes may be telling you that reporters are relying increasingly on social media for story ideas and research. After all, social media is about sharing information, just in a different way than before. But wouldn’t it be nice if you had some actual facts and figures to confirm your suspicions?

Well, now you do; in a recent online, nationwide study conducted by Cision and The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, we found that editors and journalists utilize social media in a big way. Eighty-nine percent said they use blogs to research their stories. Sixty-five percent reported using social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook, and over half (52%) use microblogging sites such as Twitter to do online research. Just over half (56%) said social media has become “important” or “somewhat important” for reporting and producing the stories they write.

What are journalists doing, exactly, with social media? Among other things, they are looking for a spark that leads to a story. That last qualifier is key; that leads to a story. Editors and journalists who responded to our study acknowledged the powerful ability of social media to spread information very quickly, (i.e., Michael Jackson’s death, and more recently, the Haiti earthquake) and that it also provides for greater accessibility to people and ideas. This allows journalists to more easily take the pulse of an audience, get feedback on a story idea, promote already-written stories, even locate unique sources and interact with readers.

However, these elements do not a story make. In our study we found that most editors and journalists (84%) think news and information delivered via social media is “slightly less” or “much less reliable” than news delivered via traditional media. When asked to explain their response to the previous question on reliability, the most frequently mentioned reason was a “lack of fact-checking or verification,” followed by “reliability is a function of the source.”

So while editors and journalists do use the medium widely to research stories, and even distribute the stories they write, they also feel strongly that a key rule of journalism still holds true for information gained from social media: confirm the source. In short, let the information consumer, in this case the story writer, beware. It is at that point that editors and journalists told us how PR professionals can be of help. When asked what added services or information PR professionals could offer that a web search or social media could not, the most frequent response was “interviews – access to sources” (43%). Since the information available via social media can potentially be biased, and sometimes simply untruthful, editors and journalists count on PR professionals to help substantiate what they have discovered from social media sources. Suggestions to PR professionals concerning social media included that they should curate and present the most valuable information in a timely manner, be cognizant of not sanitizing social media with PR-only Tweets like personnel or product promotions, consistently deliver credible, vetted sources, and expand their skill set to include social media resources.

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