Is social media damaging the quality of journalism? Asks Cicero’s Mike Robb

Social media has had an almost immeasurable impact on the worlds of journalism and PR. That much goes without saying. But it is often assumed that a journalist’s use of social media is a no-brainer – a positive tool that enhances their work by bringing them closer to their readership.

That view, however, is far from universal. Many believe social media has in fact harmed journalism by making the profession far lazier, increasing the focus on quantity over quality, and prioritising speed instead of accuracy.

I had the pleasure of chairing a roundtable recently on this very subject. We were joined at Cicero by two senior journalists coming at this issue from very different ends of the spectrum. Anthony Hilton, financial editor of the Evening Standard, thinks social media is causing significant harm to journalism; Paul Lewis, editor of the BBC’s Money Box, believes the polar opposite, and with more than 65,000 followers that should perhaps come as no surprise.

The debate around the table, too, was mixed. From a corporate perspective there was certainly the sense that social media has made it almost impossible for organisations to keep issues quiet. That point was made in an overtly positive way – it is not about hiding nasty secrets or dirty washing, but rather being able to control news that has a huge and often emotional impact on many people – redundancies, sensitive financial information, and so on. The point was made, rightly in my view, that organisations should be able to control this sort of information and keep it private.

This is an important point I had not closely considered before. There is much good that social media has brought by delivering transparency – with individuals, companies, charities, government, you name it – but it is almost taboo to suggest that this is not always a good thing. Perhaps that is something that needs to change.

But on balance I wholeheartedly fall on the Paul Lewis side of this debate. Social media has enabled the ordinary person to voice their opinions in a way never before possible. It has vastly increased the power of the individual over the corporation, something that has been largely restricted to journalists in the past. And it has enabled the people to become closer to those journalists who ultimately hold companies and governments to account on the issues that impact their daily lives.

A journalist’s use of social media should always be a starting point or a tool, and not the mechanism through which a story writes itself end-to-end. There is rightly great concern about speed over accuracy, and while the likes of Lewis and Hilton are among the most established and professional journalists that ever put pen to paper, many newbies, who have never lived in a world without social media, have a completely different perspective. This is potentially dangerous for the future of journalism.

Ultimately, one thing neither the two journalists nor any of the comms people in the room could disagree on was the fact that social media is here to stay and growing apace. Journalists, the media more widely and the PR industry itself must continue to adapt and learn how to use it to their advantage, or they will almost certainly die.

Mike Robb, Head of corporate PR and digital, Cicero Group

Creative Moment Awards 2021