With the emergence of social media comes the power to share, respond to, and spread the news at a rapid pace. Chances are, if you’re connected, you’re informed of current affairs. However, is the quality of this information being compromised for the sake of people’s shortened attention spans? Social media demands a certain format of information that can be consumed easily and quickly: Tweets, short videos, and lists seem to be replacing the four-page investigations of print media. Journalism is considered to be an art, one that requires years of schooling and impeccable writing skills. However, it seems that the news is shifting from well-written pieces to oversimplified, sharable content.
These shifts are exemplified through sites like Buzzfeed, which create ultra-sharable content in the form of videos, articles, and lists. Because of Buzzfeed, traditional journalism has given way to “click bait”: media that lures users into reading content with headlines like “You Won’t Believe How Easy These Kale Chips Are To Make” and “10 Reasons You Should Care About the Syrian Refugee Crisis”. The more clicks a headline receives, the more Buzzfeed makes from ads. This isn’t real journalism, but real journalism doesn’t appeal to the 140-character audience. Buzzfeed articles mesh perfectly with social media formats because they’re eye-catching and short. Since click bait is made for social media, there’s a definite social aspect that wasn’t as prominent in the days of traditional news. While public reactions to news stories were usually confined to the water cooler or dinner table, the participatory nature of social media demand response, whether it’s a comment on a Facebook post or a trending topic on Twitter.
Journalists are trying to keep up with the fast pace of social media. According to a study by ING, writers are prioritizing publishing first, then editing later. This is to meet the constant stream of content that social media demand. The same study says that 50% of journalists say that social media is their main source of information “despite its low degree of reliability”. Although outlets like Buzzfeed may oversimplify and exaggerate stories, the Internet is a good place to see what’s trending. A simple glance through Twitter reveals what people are interested in, so it could be a good place for journalists to start. Although, this doesn’t mean Buzzfeed qualifies as “journalism”. Most of the site’s content is entertainment that’s designed to go viral, and the pieces that actually cover serious issues are meant to be easily digested rather than challenging. As Vox CEO James Bankoff puts it, “”A brand that at once floods the zone with a lot of interesting, cute lists and also has aspirations to be a journalistic outlet really has to reconcile how they can do that and build brand identity around two things that might not be compatible in a lot of cases,” (NPR) There’s nothing wrong with giving people easy access to important information, as news meant for social media does. However, once people get used to reading listicles and viewing 30 second videos, it’s unlikely that their attention spans can handle multiple-paged exposes from The New Yorker. Speaking of which, in a study by CJR to see whether people found articles from The New Yorker or Buzzfeed more trustworthy, subjects said they found both publications more credible than not. The New Yorker is a distinguished source of quality journalism, yet audiences consider Buzzfeed, an entertainment-oriented site, just as credible.
ING (2014) The Impact of Social Media on News. (infographic)
Folkenflik, David (2013) OMG, Buzzfeed Is Investing In Serious News Coverage! Is It FTW? NPR.
Funt, Gourarie and Murtha (2016) The New Yorker, Buzzfeed, and the Push for Digital Credibility. CJR.
Kelly Duggan is a student studying public communication at the University of Vermont. She is fascinated by the constantly changing shifts brought about by social media in our society.
Advisor – Rob Williams, Ph.D., University of Vermont Professor of Media/Communication