Scary thought, isn’t it? Let’s face it: Over the past several years, journalists have fallen down the hierarchy of trustworthy professionals. Once thought of as the guardians of democracy—the Fourth Estate—the profession has seen a slow but steady slippage to somewhere just above used car salesmen.
This demotion did not come about without reason. Revelations about careless reporting and outright fiction reported as fact started journalism on the downward spiral. An increase in tabloids as the easy way to increase ad and subscription sales drove down public confidence.
But while news outlets’ credibility was experiencing a downturn, new media entrants were quietly emerging: John Q. Public as the on-the-spot reporter. Without a lot of fanfare, people around the world armed with cellphones began “reporting” news via their social media accounts. Articles that once took a professional journalist hours to research not only were being accepted as fact in an instant, they were going viral just as quickly.
The results of this phenomenon have not all been negative. Photos and short stories from countries without a free press alerted the world community to the oppressiveness of some national leaders. Messages comprising less than 140 characters called average citizens to rally for their rights. Facebook posts continue to bring attention to worthy causes. The recent ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which resulted in $1.35 million in donations to the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association between July 29 and August 11, is only the latest example. (During the same period in 2013, the association received $22,000 in donations.)
Despite these positive effects—or perhaps because of them—it is more important than ever that consumers dare to read news reports with a wary eye. Did the people at the crime scene actually witness the events or simply immediately snap and post to Facebook to receive credit for breaking the story? Were those budgets really cut or was that just a rumor flying around corporate headquarters? Was that legislation actually passed or was it the supposition of a blogger aiming for a catchy headline?
The bottom line is that the world isn’t filled with trained journalists. While laws exist that hold journalists accountable for the accuracy of the information they report as news, no such system of accountability exists in the social media realm. Although journalists understand the consequences of burning a source with inaccurate quotes or unsubstantiated claims, the smartphone-toting citizen who gets the facts wrong is not likely to lose the much-needed credibility that journalists rely on to do their jobs. So before believing everything you read in your social media feed, consider the source.