This was the question put to a panel of speakers on the April 19 2013 episode of Radio 4's 'Any Questions?' The special edition was hosted by Columbia University in New York, a most fitting location for such as discussion. You can hear the discussion in full here.
A little background on Columbia University: Columbia Graduate School of Journalism was founded by Joseph Pulitzer and the every year announces the annual Pulitzer Prize winners. The school is still driven by Pulitzer’s guiding principle that:
“A journalist is the look out on the bridge of the ship of state.”Back to the discussion. First up was Eliot Spitzer, former Attorney-General of the State of New York who went on to be elected in 2006 as the 54th Governor of the State. He said:
"I think the affirmative use of social media is that it is ubiquitous and as a consequence information flows immediately to those who need it: the Law enforcement. Information is available in literally tens of thousands of photographs, videos of the crime scene from which the FBI was able to gather the images of those who were suspects.
So clearly it has an information gathering role - that has privacy implications on the downside which is a separate conversation - but from a law enforcement perspective, the capacity to gather a massive amount of information is an affirmative consequence.
The negative consequence is that misinformation flows just as rapidly and hence you had CNN misreporting that there had been arrests because the capacity to control information, which used to be in the hands of one FBI agent to local police departments, has been diminished dramatically.
On balance, more information is better; I say that not just because I went to journalism school but because that is the basic premise of the First Amendment. And so more is better but it does pose problems."
For Congresswoman Dr Nan Hayworth then took to the floor to respond. She said:
"Social media are a fact and they are a tool and they are virtuous or as negative as those who use the social media. So I think it is incumbent upon all of us to become ever more educated consumers of information.
And one of our challenges in these 24 hour media cycles where, in which the broadcast media take what comes through social media, through these unfiltered sources and edits it, presents it, manipulates it in some sense, has to be particularly meticulous about how carefully and thoughtfully they present what may be fact versus opinion and what may be evidence versus phenomenology. Then I think that has to be borne in mind by all of us."
Jonathan Dimbleby then asked: "Do you think the America media specifically is attaining that standard?"
Dr Nan Hayworth:
"It’s evolving. They’re not consistently there. There’s a lot of room for improvement."
Black Congresswoman Donna Edwards, member of the Republican Party and critic of Obama then took to the floor. She said in reponse:
"I think social media democratises our responsibility, doesn’t it? I am just as likely for example to tweet or retweet or quote or post things that come from things that come from the professional media as I am likely to tweet something that comes from anyone of us. And it gives me a level of responsibility that I don’t know that we experienced in years past.
At the same time the speed with which information flows, as soon as I retweet something that CNN has posted, I am as likely to find out that they’ve taken back some information, changed the information that somebody else has provided something else that needs to go out too. I ask myself: what’s my responsibility then - to send that new information out? I don’t know if I ever really have one."
Jonathan Dimbleby: Is there a case for wondering whether one of the consequences of the non-stop coverage – the gruesome detail, the reshowing of images, the interviews with the victims relatives of victims, the police, the FBI, officials – some how plays into the hands of the perpetrators? That’s the kind of publicity and attention they want: all of us in a state of high anxiety. How significant, how big is this? When’s the next one coming? What should we be doing? Is there a danger of that?
"Maybe there’s a danger of that but there’s also a positive impact that you have a lot of folks out there who can potentially play it into the hands of law enforcement. Who themselves can contribute to the apprehension or contribute to the ‘see something, say something’ mentality.
I know what I find myself doing is turning that off. Because there is a point at which there becomes an overload. So then the very fact of an event consumes every moment."
Jonathan Dimbleby then directed the discussion towards Harry Evans. He said: "Harry Evans when you started your career newspapers were produced through hot metal; now we have this. What is your view on the positive and negative impacts of social media?"
Harry Evans, Reuters editor at large and husband to Tina Small, then responded. He said:
"I speak as a journalist and I must make it very clear that any criticism I make of social media are not intended to in any way interpreted as an attack on my wife who founded the Daily Beast.
But the point is this: it really worries me. Frankly, much of the social media is crap OK. Like much of the stuff on the internet is crap. It is not only not worthy, it is also not true. And my colleague Nan has made the point: very often things are picked up and misinterpreted.
One of the things that impress me, well actually two: one was Pristina, Kosovo. Do you remember that? We were trying to get through. We were trying to find out what the hell the Serbs were doing. And we couldn’t find anything, but then somebody started sending us an email. And she said people are running around the streets clubbing these people. Now what I had to make sure was that: is this person an independent reporter? Because when it got to Iran many years later, many of the stuff that was being fed out as report from Iran was being fed in by the Mollahs.
And secondly, not only was that happening, but actually the Mollahs were using the social media to identify the people that were running against them.
So there’s still a role in my view for mainstream media, which has many faults, but I think the role of gatekeepers to assure credibility and impartiality; and one of the terrible things that is happening in journalism is very often that advertising is portrayed as journalism and it’s not. There are many websites who are bringing you the news, paid by some pharmaceutical company."
Can I put to you the question I put to Donna Edwards: is there a danger of over-coverage? That you both numb people to the constant coverage and that perpetrators rub their hands because they feel they've hit the jackpot because they've got everyone alarmed and frightened?
"I read a piece recently about what the speed and intensity of the self-indulgence. Social media, much of it is self-indulgence. “I have a new hairstyle”, “I clean my teeth three times this morning” and so on. I think it’s gone beyond the point of being amazing. I think it’s quite dangerous."