Medill Survey Details Negative Impact of Social Platforms
Journalists say social-media platforms have hurt their industry, contributing to inaccurate and one-sided news accounts by exerting too much control over the mix of news that people see, according to a recent survey.
More than nine of every 10 survey respondents said social-media companies deliver a “worse mix of news” to their users, according to the online survey of journalists by Northwestern University’s Medill school of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. The survey also found that nearly eight of 10 said harassment of journalists on social media is a “very big” or “moderately big” problem.
The second-ever Medill Media Industry Survey was conducted at the end of 2021 by Associate Professor Stephanie Edgerly of Medill, and Danielle K. Brown, the Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality at the University of Minnesota. More than 1,500 members of the U.S. news media completed the questionnaire.
Medill used Cision, a media listings database, to obtain email contact information from individuals who had at least one of the following keywords in their profile: columnist, correspondent, director, editor, producer, reporter, writer, then sorted the list for news organizations exceeding a minimal audience size. Exactly 25,000 people were invited to participate in the survey, which was open between Nov. 30 and Dec. 31.
Among the findings, 90.7 percent of respondents said the role social media companies play in delivering the news results is a worse mix of news, while 86.5 percent said social media companies have too much control over the mix of news people see. Some 79.3 percent said social media has a mostly negative impact on the journalism industry, and an overwhelming 94.3 percent of respondents blamed social media for spreading inaccurate news.
The survey was the subject of a discussion at a Medill Centennial panel on Feb. 3, featuring newsroom leaders of ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, Vox Media and the Los Angeles Times. “There’s certainly a lot of frustration,” observed Kevin Merida, Executive Editor at the Times.
But Merida also said social-media platforms are an important gateway to the work of journalists, who must learn to operate on them. “We’re not putting the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “Within the platforms, we have the ability to also hop in and define our relationship, how we’re going to access them and how we’re going to communicate through them.”
ABC News President Kimberly Godwin said journalists need to help people become smarter consumers of news on social platforms. “They keep sending you misinformation,” she said. “We have to find ways to break through the clutter so that they get at the truth.”
Social media challenges journalists to understand its strengths and weaknesses so they can interest an audience and deliver strong, accurate messages, said Melissa Bell, publisher of Vox Media.
“It is important for us to recognize how much of an impact social media has had on our reporting,” she said. “There are strengths in it. There are ways to reach people that you couldn’t reach before.”
Journal Editor in Chief Matt Murray warned that journalists should not mistake dialogue on social media for the “richer, fuller, more varied and dramatic” stories that reporters can uncover in “real life.” “Social media is a tool, from a journalist’s perspective, to be used,” he said. “It’s a tool to get news out there,” Murray said.
The survey indicates that journalists are more critical of social media than are U.S. adults at large. The percentage of U.S. adults saying the companies have too much control over the mix of news they see was 62 percent in a Pew Research Center survey from July 2019. That response was nearly 25 percentage points lower than that of journalists in the 2021 Medill survey.
Similarly, the percentage of U.S. adults who said social-media companies provide a worse mix of news was 55 percent in the Pew survey, far less than the 90.7-percent response from journalists surveyed by Medill.
Edgerly, who oversaw the survey, said its results suggest that social media is not living up to its potential to make vital news stories more visible. “A clear majority of journalists are seeing the potential gains are not matching the realities,” she said. “The survey suggests that we’re not seeing quality information reaching a broader audience. That is not the reality of how social media functions.”
The University of Minnesota’s Brown, who partnered with Edgerly, said she’s not surprised that journalists’ view of social media is more negative than the population’s at large, as measured in other surveys.
“We asked journalists to think about: social-media companies and their control; loss of autonomy; and how the work they create is used by other people,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me that they don’t like the way social-media companies control the news that people have access to. It doesn’t surprise me at all.”
For details about how the Medill Media Survey was conducted, please see this article.
Article image by Gian Cescon used under Unsplash license (Unsplash)
About the author
Burns served as Editorial Board member, columnist and business editor at the Chicago Tribune and as a reporter for BusinessWeek magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Medill and launched his career at the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail. Burns most recently was director of financial communications, executive media and sustainability at Allstate. He continues to contribute editorials to the Chicago Tribune.
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