Earlier this week, Era Associate Editor Marcie Schellhammer questioned the stories journalists choose to cover, citing the hullabaloo some reporters made over the stilettos first lady Melania Trump wore when touring hurricane-ravaged Texas.
Marcie wondered why journalists — and the public — made such a big deal over something relatively benign, particularly when there were so many other important issues at hand.
I’m not surprised that the stilettos story had legs (no pun intended — well, maybe it was) because it was all over social media. Mrs. Trump’s questionable choice in footwear was one of the first stories I saw that morning in my Facebook feed.
As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I teach Social Media Communication at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, so I pay attention to how social media affects many aspects of our lives, including how we consume and how journalists cover the news.
In the last few years, I’ve noticed that social often affects what news is covered by the traditional media — newspapers, radio, TV and magazines.
Remember the Chewbacca mom from last year? She was the woman who purchased a roaring Chewbacca mask from Kohl’s and uploaded to YouTube a video of herself sitting in her car, trying out the mask and laughing with glee. It was all over social, not just YouTube, and one night Lester Holt covered the “story” on the evening news. And he wasn’t the only traditional journalist to do so. The “story” appeared on other networks and was published in The Gray Lady herself — The New York Times.
Is that news? Hardly.
But there have been many other examples, times when non-news stories have made the headlines in traditional media, in large measure, because of the “viral-ness” of them on social media.
Why is this becoming more pervasive? Well, in part, because traditional journalists are on social just like the rest of us. When they see a trending story, they may cover it themselves. And, more and more traditional journalists are looking to social to find stories or gather more information about them.
According to the report, “The American Journalist in the Digital Age,” which was written by two professors from Indiana University’s School of Journalism, a significant percentage of journalists are using social.
Nearly 80 percent of them are checking social media for breaking news. Almost 60 percent of journalists are using social to find story ideas, and 56 percent are using it to gather more information. Other journalists say they’re using social to help them report the news faster and cover more stories.
While journalists are reporting on some non-stories based on what they see trending on social, there is an upside. Social has helped to bring legitimate, important issues to reporters’ attention.
Take the case of pastor Joel Osteen, who leads Lakewood Church, a megachurch in Houston. When Hurricane Harvey first hit last week, the pastor didn’t make available the 16,000-seat church to those displaced by the hurricane, something we may never have known about if it hadn’t been for social media.
It started when Osteen took to Twitter. On Aug. 26, the day after Harvey made landfall, he tweeted: “Victoria (his wife) & I are praying for everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey. Please join us as we pray for the safety of our Texas friends & family.” That tweet opened the social floodgates.
Almost immediately — as so often happens on social — hundreds of people starting replying. Many asked if he was going to open the church to house those who needed shelter. The following day, he posted on the church’s Facebook page that the church was inaccessible due to severe flooding.
About 24 hours later, former ESPN analyst Sean Salisbury went to the church to see firsthand the church’s flooding, which, according to the video he tweeted on Monday, didn’t exist. His video was retweeted 3,631 times, liked by 7,000 and received 568 comments.
That’s when the traditional media — CNN, MSNBC, NBC, USA Today, Fox News, Newsweek, CBS and others — took up the story, which ultimately led to his opening the church on Tuesday, Aug. 29.
Osteen went back to social to spread the news, tweeting, “Victoria and I care deeply about our fellow Houstonians. Lakewood’s doors are open and we are receiving anyone who needs shelter.”
Had it not been for social, the traditional media may never have picked up this story.
I frequently tell my students that there are good, bad and ugly aspects of social media. It is well worth watching on the evening news or reading about in a newspaper the Chewbacca mom or the stiletto-heeled Mrs. Trump if it results in the media also shining a light on hypocrisy, which ultimately leads to displaced Houstonians having another safe place to seek refuge.
(Cercone is a former city editor of The Era and currently Pitt-Bradford’s executive director of communications and marketing.)