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Can journalists tango with the social media?

World Press Freedom Day is marked with questions about the future

It's time for journalists to reflect once again as the world marks Press Freedom Day. And once again their thoughts will be tinged with apprehension. First it was the classic elements of their work that came under threat - the necessity to be the first to get quotes, photos and backgrounds for stories has fallen to the growing army of quick-fire online social-media users. But the "battle" has not stopped there. The social media have empowered their users to think and analyse, adding even more intrigue to the question of where traditional journalism goes from here.

Whatever the direction, there's still a long journey ahead. The online networks are full of hearsay, distortions and blatant lies, making journalists' duty of protecting the facts even more important. On the plus side, the social media can be "self-policing", with knowledgeable users quickly exposing misinformation and fabrications to the light of truth.

Online-network users are also getting better at simplifying complexities and analysing difficult situations. What the conventional media should be worried about most is their "rivals'" ability to boil down complex stories into simple and easily digestible nuggets, as when complicated matters must be explained to a member of your own family. That's the way most people like to get their news.

While Thailand's political crisis has done terrible damage to the country, it has also prompted a rise in the use of the social media, highlighted their importance and enabled people on both sides to take a more active role in politics. Importantly, the social media have provided access to information that has enabled citizens to think on their themselves. The analytical skills demonstrated by users of Facebook and Twitter are certainly giving mainstream journalists cause for pause.

Previously citizens read newspapers or watched TV to passively receive the news. The ability to double-check the facts themselves has now made that less necessary. Now they read newspapers and watch TV to see if the opinions or analyses match theirs. A political "newbie" can quickly become an expert pundit by smart use of the social media.

At present the relationship between the conventional and social media is mutually beneficial. The flow of information is largely two-way. A reporter can glean breaking news from a ministry, but it might be an "expert" in the social media who points out how important the news is, sparking communal research that pours further light on political developments.

But the question remains: How exactly should journalism evolve in an era when, for instance, an unpaid blogger can comprehensively and immediately cover a scientific breakthrough? The challenge might not seem urgent to conventional journalists, given that the blog receives no advertising revenue and the substance of its report will be in the newspapers and on TV soon enough. But that state of affairs might not last for long.

The truth is that the flow of advertising money, which is key to mainstream journalism's survival, is becoming more unpredictable. Major newspapers are folding or being taken over not because of declining standards, but because consumers are getting smarter. First they were smart enough to obtain free information and learn to sift fact from fiction. Now, more and more are becoming smart enough to analyse the facts by themselves.

We have witnessed the mainstream and social media working ever closer together but, if fact-finding and analysis are the "DNA" of conventional journalism, its future evolution could involve more than the present close relationship with the social media.


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