Rely on Newspapers, Not Social Media

A portion of a newspaper headline

A newspaper with headline declaring ‘Print is not dead’
In the 1984 film Ghostbusters, Janine, the company receptionist, said to her geeky boss Egon Spengler, “I bet you like to read a lot,” to which Egon coldly replied, “Print is dead.” No doubt Mr. Spengler must have had some inside information or a crystal ball because private connections to the internet didn’t become widespread for six more years, and the first social media site (Six Degrees) wouldn’t launch until 1997. By 2004, however, a number of online news sites had sprung up, leading most print edition newspapers to offer their own online content. That was followed by an explosion in social media platforms that encouraged and facilitated the sharing of information, which, at first, was fairly benign. People posted vacation photos, travel tips, and endless pet tricks. Then a not-so-funny thing happened. Sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter became repositories for misinformation.

Perhaps we didn’t really need empirical research to tell us that the rise in social media “news” has triggered a decline in the fortunes of printed newspapers. Nevertheless, Penelope Muse Abernathy spelled it out for us anyway. Abernathy, a journalism professor at UNC Chapel Hill, released a report last month which showed that overall circulation of daily newspapers dropped by 44% between 2004 and 2019, and that over 2,000 newspapers shut down during that same period of time. Even worse, an additional 35 newspapers have ceased publication just since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March. Meanwhile, Abernathy says that of the 71,640 newspaper reporters and editors working in 2008, more than half had lost their jobs by 2018.

It is no surprise, then, that, according to the Pew Research Center, social media sites “have surpassed print newspapers as a news source for Americans.” And, according to Forbes, nearly 65% of internet users receive breaking news from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram, instead of traditional media. Aside from the declining number of newspapers and the jobs lost as a result, the thing that should concern us most is accuracy and accountability.

Unlike television broadcasters who are regulated by the government, and newspapers who must adhere to strict standards of journalism, or else run afoul of libel laws, social media sites get by with publishing just about anything from anyone. No fact-checking, no confirming or citing sources, and no mechanism for undoing the damage they may cause. Following the massacre of over 50 people at a Las Vegas concert, one social media site misidentified the shooter as a Democratic operative, while another reported that the gunman was working for the Russian government. If a newspaper made a mistake like that, the publisher would have to run a retraction. But in the age of Trump, it’s not only OK to post misinformation, it’s OK to re-tweet it, and re-tweet it, and re-tweet it.

Don’t get me wrong. If used responsibly, social media can bring us important information quicker than any other source, and can even save lives in times of an impending natural disaster. But when misused, social media can confuse the truth and stoke the fires of civil unrest. So what’s the solution? First we must hope that Congress will vote to regulate social media, and assign stiff penalties to those sites and their subscribers whenever their platforms are used to disseminate false information. Second, we must encourage our friends to be more selective when it comes to online news sources. Suggest that they stick to websites owned and operated by reputable newspapers. And third, if you own or manage a local business, you should place your advertising dollars with local papers instead of on social media sites. If you do, rest assure that your ads will be surrounded by factual news stories, written by responsible journalists who live and work in your community. Do these things, and you won’t need a crystal ball to tell you that print is still very much alive.


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