Social media versus journalism

By Alsir Sidahmed
The fast-emerging social media has played a crucial role in the so-called Arab Spring. It is a popular belief that Facebook played a crucial role in the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.Due to the ongoing turmoil in the Arab Spring countries, social media through its real-time coverage has become a major source of information. Despite its growing popularity, social media can in no way be called journalism. That is why, while using crude material provided by social media, most media outlets issue a disclaimer as in most cases the authenticity of the material could not be ascertained. However, social media reports find their way through as they fill in for the missing link i.e. field reporting, which is almost absent in the countries in turmoil. In the past, foreign media used to fill in the gap. Gone are the days when the foreign media outlets were willing to spend. Interest in foreign news coverage is constantly declining as people in London, New York and Paris are more interested in local news that shape and affect their lives, while at the same time even major news organizations are feeling the pinch the of economic crisis that has greatly affected their performance to such an extent that some went out of business completely. Some have gone online like Newsweek and the Christian Science Monitor. Of late the prestigious Washington Post brand name was bought for only $250 million. These circumstances have forced many major western media outlets to rely on freelance journalists or local reporters as a way to cut spending. Coverage of what is going on in Syria, for instance, comes mainly from those freelancers. But this attitude comes with a price. And the price in this case is the lack of credible information. One good example is despite the flow of social media news it was not clear who is to be blamed for using chemical weapons in Syria. It took a professional journalist C. Chivers of the New York Times to sniff through the international inspectors’ reports and pinpoint the real culprit, which turned out to be Assad’s regime. That is why Chivers told a recent conference: “What social media provide is information and journalism is what you do with it.” Social media is looked at with suspicion for two main reasons. First, it does not apply strict regulatory professional measures to ensure balance, accuracy and other basic rules before releasing reports. The second reason is the growing trend to use social media as a tool for political activism and to lobby for a certain cause. With such an attitude it is easy to highlight or suppress some aspects of the story depending on how that information in the story is serving or undermining the “noble” cause of the activist, who is using Facebook or other tools to further his/her cause.
In the absence of credible information from local media outlets or foreign correspondence or freelancers who cannot cover all the aspects of a certain event, people are left with hardly anything concrete to rely on to know what is happening around them. A quick look at any of the Arab Spring countries could summarize the whole scene in one word “polarization.” Political struggle in those countries is running high and every piece of news is used to support or undermine one viewpoint. That leads to confusion, which is compounded by the fact that comments in media outlets or by politicians is based on this very unreliable information, which adds to the confusion and that helps explain part of the dilemma engulfing these countries. It is difficult to see democracy flourish in an environment where credible information is sidelined.
In this respect it seems democracy is more than opening up to different views. It is more about allowing more space for accurate, balanced and more professional reporting.