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University of Wisconsin–Madison

How social media changes the function of journalism

The  revolution in media has created a revolution in journalism ethics.

One area where the ethical revolution is evident is a new emphasis on certain functions of journalism that have long played a secondary role in the history of journalism and its ethics.

To put it simply: The “forum” function of journalism has become the primary function of journalism and, more generally, of the use of media.

To understand why this is so you have to grasp the depth of this revolution in communication, especially for news media. It involves a game-changing difference in the human capacities employed, and a simultaneous change in the primary function of media.

The use of news media until recently has stressed the cognitive activity of individuals receiving news provided by an external source such as a newspaper, and then forming their opinions. Not surprisingly, the ethics of news media stressed the need for journalists to accurately and fairly provide factual information to these citizens.

Other media functions were mentioned by ethicists, but these functions were not as primary as providing information. For example, by the mid-1940s, analysts started to talk about the media’s “forum” function – providing different perspectives on issues.

Consider how much has changed.

Today’s media requires users to deploy a different set of cognitive and social capabilities. Citizens scan information in a social media context where others are expressing views about the information being scanned. Information intake and interpretation occur almost at the same time. The need for information does not decline but the primary function of media becomes the exchange of views. What is of greatest interest is what the facts mean.

Therefore, we develop different expectations of media. For instance, young people who have grown up with social media expect to get their information in the context of expressing views and interacting with others, on Facebook or elsewhere.

Interactive media emphasize the “forum” function as primary, while transforming it.

A piece of forum journalism today is not just an op-ed article in The Globe and Mail. A media forum is more likely to be an evolving, interactive discussion online. The forum consists of intersecting networks of online expression, a chaotic global sphere where rich layers of information, perspective, and advocacy intertwine like the strands of a rope.


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