Power to the people

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to punch the editor who fancied himself a latter day Lou Grant or Ben Bradlee with this quip. We get it, boss. It’s an important, if dated, maxim by which good journalists operate.

It’s something worth remembering as the furious post-election scramble for moral superiority playing out on social media promulgates information that is misleading, out of context or flat-out false.  And any social media user would be wise to consider the benefits of checking it out, if for no other reason than saving themselves some embarrassment at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Why I am telling you this? Be assured it’s not to lecture anyone. Throughout my career, there have been more occasions than I care to admit when I’ve gotten it wrong. It’s a horrible feeling. Yes, it’s annoying because I have to correct the record, my ego takes a ding and it’s likely to come up in my performance review. But what bothers me more is the damage I’ve done, not only to my news organization’s credibility, but to the aggrieved parties named in the article or headline I’ve edited. It cannot be undone, and it’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

But in a greater sense, I’m speaking to you as fellow journalists. That’s right. In whatever capacity you engage in social media, you are — despite the objections of those sticklers in “traditional” media — as much a journalist as I am. You have to power to retrieve and distribute information that has no small role in influencing the decisions of the friends, family, colleagues and anyone else who follows you. Through their (hopefully) positive personal association with you, your recommendations can carry more weight than the New York Times or Fox News.

Don’t believe me? Several years ago, I was stunned to hear colleagues relate a new phenomenon of people whose sole source of news and information was their Facebook feed. That’s not to say traditional media wasn’t part of the mix, but their diet was restricted to however they chose to set up the feed. If we weren’t on it, they weren’t reading it. It was a purely anecdotal observation, so I was skeptical. But it got me thinking about the possibilities. Isn’t it plausible that people inform themselves exclusively via social channels?

Why wouldn’t they? The internet offers an incomprehensible volume of information and ideas available to anyone interested in any topic. Thanks to Google, you can find the ones that fit you. And thanks to social media, you can eliminate the ones that don’t. It’s an incredibly seductive place — a place where you pick and choose the information you like, and you never have to be wrong. The temptation to operate at this level becomes evident during highly politicized times such as an election year, when we find opposing sides beating each other over the head with different sets of facts. It’s what we’re seeing play out now as winners and losers from last week’s election desperately try to buttress their cases with supporting documentation scoured from the depths of the internet. For all of our legitimate concerns over proper vetting and verification of source material, this is the new marketplace of ideas. It’s how — and where — people are choosing to engage each other. Social media is leading the discussion, while traditional media, still brooding over how it so badly misread the electorate, plays catch-up. The public forum has migrated, and in the process transformed into myriad microforums.

Let’s be clear: We aren’t going to step back from this experiment and return traditional media to its gatekeeper role. Those days are over. Somewhere in the last decade, the balance shifted irrevocably. Traditional media isn’t going away, but despite what critics from the far left and right say, its capacity to influence public opinion is severely diminished and probably has been for some time. My suggestion for our industry is to stop thinking of ways to fit social media into what we do, and instead work on how the things we do can fit into social media. There will still be a place for our content, but it will be increasingly at the discretion of social media users to share or dismiss as they see fit.

So while news organizations lick their wounds from a brutal election cycle, let’s accept their limitations in an arena they no longer dominate. Conservatives convinced of a perpetual liberal bias can rejoice (although the victory is bittersweet for radio host Charlie Sykes). Liberals who once demanded “power to the people” now have an opportunity to seize it. From any perspective, it’s a seismic shift of Jacksonian proportions. The floodgates have opened. The power once vested in the Fourth Estate now belongs to all of you, my fellow journalists. Use it wisely.

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