Free Society: Social Media Makes It a Challenge to Tell Who’s a Journalist

Social media apps dominate our smartphones. (AP/The Conversation)
Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

Nearly a fifth of Omahans prefer to get their news through social me­dia, while another fifth pull up news websites or apps to learn what’s happening.

A study earlier this year by the Pew Research Center found that television remains the most pre­ferred format, but online news con­tinues to expand.

In many cases, the lines between traditional and new media outlets has become blurred in many cases as news consumers can access the same information streams favored by local journalists. That can mud­dy the waters for the information that fuels a democratic society – leading to so-called “fake news,” propaganda and, ultimately, a mis­informed populace.

Carol Zuegner, a journalism pro­fessor at Creighton University, said she learned journalism on a type­writer. Now she’s teaching every­thing on smartphones. Blogs can draw more page views than The New York Times, she said, but that is a double-edged sword.

“That creates more pressure on traditional media, and traditional media using social media, to make sure their content is good,” Zuegner said. “It’s good to have more voices out there, but you have to be able to filter the voices, and I’m not sure that people do that very well.”

Zuegner said having a separa­tion between reporters who gather information and editors who care­fully review their stories adds value to traditional journalism that’s often lost in the social media environ­ment. The curation of news might make it harder for some voices to be heard, but it also focuses news consumers on what’s important and can expose them to a variety of per­spectives.

“It doesn’t mean that a citizen can’t do good journalism, and it doesn’t mean everything the profes­sionals do is good,” Zuegner said. 

Citizen journalists can be critical for a community when they pick up the slack left by the retreat of traditional media outlets, such as covering public meetings or neigh­borhood developments that don’t otherwise garner news coverage. Zuegner cautions that consumers need to know where information comes from, though.

Caution is also warranted by the content creators. Without a news­gathering organization’s backing, lawsuits alleging libel or slander could be an even bigger threat, and other pitfalls abound – as evident by the meltdown last year of the @MeanStreetsOMA Twitter ac­count.

The Mean Streets account lost its seven unpaid contributors af­ter a series of degrading tweets last summer. The Twitter account @Omaha_Scanner was created in the aftermath, although it has a much smaller following than the original account. It takes a more reserved, matter-of-fact tone than Mean Street’s “death, destruction and funny stuff” personality.

Zuegner said the people behind social media feeds like those fol­lowing 911 scanner traffic should be aware there could be consequences if they cross lines that typically are observed by traditional media out­lets.

“I admire what they are doing, but I hope they know the risks of what they’re doing and what hap­pens when you publish,” Zuegner said. “You have protections, but you have to know what they are and you have to be assertive in getting them.”

Journalists, generally speaking, have few legal rights beyond those of ordinary citizens, although they tend to be more aware of their rights – and limitations to those rights – when it comes to gathering infor­mation about government activities.

Shawn Renner, an attorney at Cline Williams Wright Johnson & Oldfather who specializes in com­munication and media law, said Nebraska does afford journalists protection under what’s know as a “shield law,” which provides an im­munity from compelled discovery or testimony for members of the working press.

Nebraska statute protects any “person engaged in procuring, gath­ering, writing, editing, or dissemi­nating news or other information to the public” from being forced to identify sources or provide in­formation obtained or prepared in gathering, receiving or processing information – including any notes, photos, film and tapes.

“Nebraska’s shield law is actu­ally one of the broader ones in the country,” Renner said. “Many of the existing state shield laws cover or relate only to confidential source information, and Nebraska’s does not do that – it’s limited to any in­formation that was not broadcast or not published.”

While federal law contains no such privilege for journalists, Renner said federal courts have respected Nebraska’s shield law, although they aren’t bound by it. Many other states have their own versions of shield laws, while some states have no such formal protec­tion for newsgathering.

Nebraska also extends a few smaller legal benefits to media, such as the ability to request to bring cameras into courtrooms or the right to request direct notifica­tion of public meeting. Generally speaking, though, journalists have the same right to attend open meet­ings or request public records as other citizens and organizations.

That doesn’t mean, however, that journalists don’t get special treatment. They are often invited to press conferences, given behind-the-scenes access to events, tipped off to potential stories and enjoy preferential access to important people – access, that is, that goes beyond what everyday citizens re­ceive, including those who may blog or tweet or otherwise dissemi­nate views and information to the public.

Securing a press credential, or even being placed on distribution lists for press advisories, can be a badge of credibility; denying it can be a signal by government officials that they don’t consider a journalist to be reputable.

The Republican-controlled Iowa House of Representatives, for ex­ample, denied press credentials to Laura Belin, who operates the lib­eral Bleeding Heartland blog, the Associated Press reported earlier this year. The credential would have allowed her access to work space and briefings with key lawmakers.

“The fact that I don’t pretend to be objective, that I don’t hide my opinion about some of the po­litical issues I cover, I don’t think that should have any bearing on whether I am considered a member of the media,” Belin told the AP in January.

Iowa Republican Party chair­man Jeff Kaufmann tweeted that he viewed Belin as a “partisan amateur blogger” who is no more a journal­ist than he is.

“If she is issued credentials than any person that has a passing inter­est, a modicum of writing ability, and a partisan axe to grind should receive the credential,” Kaufmann said.

While access to some stories be­comes harder for “unofficial” jour­nalists, the opposite is often true: Stories go untold because there’s no journalist to tell them.

Ross Bartachek and Tony Hager found that was the case with Nebraska’s high school wrestling community, which often failed to get much media attention from tra­ditional outlets, especially as bud­gets are squeezed across the indus­try.

Bartachek said they imported an already successful formula from Iowa to launch in 2016. He said a few coaches ap­proached him about starting up a Nebraska site after seeing Iowa coverage of their athletes who par­ticipated in club wrestling. He said they’re committed to providing free content, which includes high school rankings for Classes A through D.

“It helps people to get into the sport if you don’t have to pay,” Bartachek said. “Our support for this sport is passion-based.”

Bartachek said the website grew its fan base using social media, where it was able to connect with the state’s wrestling community. He said they found people who were interested in contributing rankings, which move from tweets to a blog-driven website where it’s paired with news stories and coverage of collegiate, national and internation­al competitions.

While the website competes with traditional media, as well as a few wrestlers who are using their social media platform to share content, Bartachek said seeing other people take interest is exciting and helps keep his platform accountable.

“I didn’t go to journalism school. I don’t have that credibility of be­ing an actual journalist,” Bartachek said. “There are so many good sto­ries that it’s good that we can come in and help tell some of those stories that may have gotten missed or fell through the cracks, but I definitely love having traditional sports me­dia, I love having the other sites like us competing for those stories, too.”


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