Social Media and Attacks on Traditional, Investigative Journalism

Once upon a time, we received news in traditional formats from finite media sources by way of newspapers, television, and radio. And the news we received from those sources did not vary tremendously one from another. The news just seemed to be the news. As Walter Cronkite closed on his CBS nightly newscast, “And that’s the way it is” — in essence meaning, “Those are the facts.”

Times plainly have changed. There are many sources of news. People can choose a news outlet that suits their own political preferences. For example, for someone of a conservative, Republican persuasion, Fox News might be the news outlet of choice. Fox tends to present the news more in line with that end of the political spectrum. And, of course, there are other news outlets that favor the liberal, Democrat end of the political spectrum. So what are the “facts” when the reporting of the same events can be interpreted very differently?

Social Media as “News”

The answer to this question is all the more important when we factor in the influence of social media when it comes to the news. Many millions of people now get their news from social media streaming. Facebook alone has more than 1.5 billion users. A substantial number of those users obtain their news from the daily Facebook feed. They also get their news from what is posted by their Facebook “friends.” Practically anyone now can act as a newscaster — posting information and interpretations on events as they happen.

Is the “news” as posted on social media reliable? Not necessarily. This “news” is not vetted as it would be via traditional journalism. Often times, people just vent their opinions and create facts from those opinions. And worse, “fake news” truly occurs — for example, a number of intelligence agencies have reported that Russia and others attempted to influence our most recent presidential election by leaking or using social media to post less than credible information online. It probably goes without saying that this can have huge ramifications.

Plus, by being able to choose our own designer news — having the choice of what version of the news we want to receive based on our political stripes — there can be a greater divide between people of different political persuasions. We see what we believe and we are not aware of how others think and experience the world.

The Attack on Traditional Journalism

On top of all of this, traditional journalism is under attack. We have seen that a simple tweet from the President can send the world scurrying to ascertain whether what has been tweeted is truth or made-up “facts.” And when it is pointed out that a tweet actually is not factually correct, the President accuses traditional media outlets as being “fake news” and his administration has declared that the press is the “enemy” or the “opposition.” The press is seriously undermined when it seeks to correct factual inaccuracies and then is accused of being the “fake news.”

The press serves as one of the important checks and balances to protect democracy. But now traditional press must compete with social media, which allows people to live in their own bubbles and which thrives on immediate and sensational postings. And the traditional press is under attack by the executive branch of government.

Traditional, investigative journalism is time-consuming and labor-intensive. Such journalism with persistence and digging uncovered and reported on the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. Such journalism is imperative now too, to make sure that those who are governed are governed properly by those in government. Indeed, without the press, it would not have been revealed that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn communicated with Russia during the presidential campaign about the issue of sanctions against Russia imposed by former President Obama.

To get back to the original question of this piece, as a country we need to support the efforts of traditional journalism to make sure that we receive and digest true facts. We need to step out of our own social media “news” bubbles to see what is really happening and to learn the views of others with whom we do not always agree. Social media companies also should take efforts to provide news from reliable sources. And we should not tolerate attacks on the press by the government.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod’s columns, please email him at ejsinrod@duanemorris.com with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s law firm or its individual partners.