A generation ago, the likes of Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer were the heroes of television news in the United States. Now the biggest stars are arguably Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow. Notice the difference? Cronkite, Jennings and Sawyer reported the news. Hannity and Maddow talk about the news, and occasionally make it. But you never doubt how they feel about it.
Evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC gave straightforward accounts of the day’s events, and morning shows told you what happened while you slept. Newspapers flourished, with sections clearly marked for news and editorial pages for opinion. The one cable network, in its infancy, followed the play-it-straight rules of the big broadcasters. There was no Internet, no social media feed, no smartphone with headlines flashing.
Today, many newspapers are diminished. People are as likely to find articles through links on social media posted by friends and celebrities. Three TV news channels, two with firmly established points of view, air an endless loop of politically laced talk. There’s no easy escape from a 24-hour-a-day news culture.
The internet’s emergence has made the media far more democratic — for good and ill. There are many more voices to hear. Exposure to different content and ideas on social media and TV affects each and every one of us differently. It helps every one of us form ideas, change our attitudes, beliefs and actions in so unique ways.
There are some positive aspects to social media. It’s important to remember that teens are hardwired for socialization, and social media makes socializing easy and immediate. Teens who struggle with social skills, social anxiety, or who don’t have easy access to face-to-face socializing with other teens might benefit from connecting with other teens through social media.
A recent study found that individual-based social networking is said to have grown at the expense of more traditional personal relationships. The research found this in some instances, but more commonly found social media being used to actually reinforce traditional groups, such as family, castes, and tribes, and to repair the ruptures created by migration and mobility.
Having been connected to social media also helps change our broader views on the world and the happenings. According to a study by Pew Research Center, 14% of the people surveyed stated that they have changed their views about a political or social issue in the past year because of something they saw on social media.
Certain groups, particularly young men, are more likely than others to say they’ve modified their views because of social media. Around three-in-ten men ages 18 to 29 (29%) say their views on a political or social issue changed in the past year due to social media. This is roughly twice the share saying this among all Americans and more than double the shares among men and women ages 30 and older (12% and 11%, respectively).
There are also differences by race and ethnicity, according to the new survey. Around one-in-five black (19%) and Hispanic (22%) Americans say their views changed due to social media, compared with 11% of whites.
In 2016, the Center asked social media users whether they had “ever modified” their views about a political or social issue because of something they saw on social media. Two-in-ten said yes and 79% said no, with more Democrats and Democratic leaners than Republicans and Republican leaners saying they had modified views.
Although most people have not changed their views on a political or social issue in the past year because of social media, those who have also tend to place a high level of personal importance on social media as a tool for personal political engagement and activism.
Just over half whose views changed (56%) say social media is personally important in providing a venue to express their political opinions, compared with a third of social media users who have not changed a view in the past year (33%).
While Americans who haven’t changed their views put less personal importance in social media, majorities see these platforms as helping give a voice to underrepresented groups; highlighting important issues that might otherwise go unnoticed; or helping hold powerful people accountable for their actions.
As President Donald Trump rewrites the rules of engagement to knock the media off stride, he’s found a receptive audience among his supporters for complaints about “fake news” and journalists who are “enemies of the people.”
“We don’t have a communications and public sphere that can discern between fact and opinion, between serious journalists and phonies,” says Stephen J.A. Ward, author of 10 books on the media, including the upcoming “Ethical Journalism in a Populist Age.”
In an ideal world, Ward says, people would have an opportunity to learn media literacy. And he’d have fewer uneasy cocktail party encounters after he meets someone new and announces that he’s an expert in journalism ethics. “After they laugh, they talk about some person spouting off on Fox or something,” he says. He has to explain: That may be some people’s idea of journalism, but it’s not news reporting.