Writing about Writing about Social Media

Social media: if you’re tired of hearing me talk about it, you can  just stop using it. Deal?


My point exactly. In the age of online journalism, social media plays a key role in disseminating news. However, today I want to focus not on how news sites use social media but instead on how they cover it.

For those of you who’ve read my previous posts, you may know that I’ve been fairly critical of Al Jazeera America’s use of social media; namely, I bashed it for only using its social media accounts to promote the stories on its main website. Its coverage of social media is a far different story. In fact, it reminded me why always catering to the quickly distributed, constantly updated news consumers doesn’t always pan out for news websites. To illustrate this, I selected a social media controversy that hit the web late last week – namely, the recently dismantled @ColbertReport’s tweet that many deemed racist and insensitive to the Asian community. I pitted Al Jazeera America’s coverage of the story against three major news networks’ – CNN.comFox News, and NBC News – online coverage.

Colbert's response to a controversial tweet quoted directly from his show.

Colbert’s response to a controversial tweet quoted directly from his show.

In order to select the stories I would base my analysis on, I did what most millennials would probably do: searched “colbert” on each of the four websites and selected the most relevant-looking story out of the top three hits. The searches produced the following headlined stories:

Al Jazeera America: Analysis: A tone-deaf joke from ‘The Colbert Report’ and resulting backlash show the pitfalls of Twitter activism

CNN: Stephen Colbert denies racist tweet

Fox News: Stephen Colbert accused of racism, #CancelColbert trends on Twitter

NBC News: Stephen Colbert responds to Twitter backlash: ‘#CancelColbert — I agree!’ 

Each of the three major networks followed a similar approach: a summary of how Colbert insulted the Asian community, some mention of the trending #CancelColbert hashtag, a screenshot of Colbert’s response to the controversy on his @StephenAtHome account, and a variety of Twitter posts commenting on the debacle.

The "experts" referenced in most of the coverage: other Twitter users.

The “experts” referenced in most of the coverage: other Twitter users.

As for Al Jazeera America? It produced an article with a refreshingly different angle. Instead of simply restating what had thus far occurred and sprinkling some random Twitter comments into the text for good measure, Al Jazeera America placed the incident in the wider context of “hashtag advocacy” and its overall effectiveness in exacting political and social reform. Though the article contained no images beyond the featured picture of Colbert, it proved an engaging read, pulling from various expert sources and providing a detailed account of the many sides of the debate.

In rejecting the notion that all online news needs to be short, to the point, and filled with pretty pictures and videos in order to keep the audience’s attention, Al Jazeera America created a poignant, relevant piece, all without a heavy reliance on multimedia elements. Ironically, the best coverage of so modern an issue as social media utilized some of the oldest tools of the journalistic trade: thorough research, balanced reporting, and a fresh take on an overdone story.

Maybe there’s hope for journalism after all.



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