Claire Wardle, the research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, discussed the ethical role of social media in the changing landscape of journalism to an audience of 30 students, faculty and staff Thursday evening.

Wardle, speaking at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School, said in the last 10 years, the tools with which content can be created and disseminated have rapidly changed because of social media.

She cited in particular how Twitter and Facebook, two online platforms through which most Americans obtain their news, according to a report in the Guardian, were both first available to the public in 2006, while the first iPhone with a camera came about in 2007.

With the rise of these sites, Wardle said the way in which breaking news is consumed by the greater public and crafted by journalists has been one of the most rapid developments in the media industry. She noted that the majority of the videos and pictures that have come to encapsulate a breaking news event, whether the London bombings in July 2005 or the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015, follow a similar path to notoriety through social media.

When shaky or grainy footage is uploaded to social media sites, she said, it is typically requested for use on websites, in newspapers, or on television by major media organizations such as CNN and the Associated Press.

However, she noted that even when videos are uploaded to social media sites like Facebook, each media organization has the power to contextualize it and frame it. For example, when Philando Castile was shot by a police officer, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, uploaded a video of the shooting to Facebook, which was then shared by websites such as The New York Times and The Guardian in different ways.

“European broadcasters blurred everything and within American organizations, half of the news organizations blurred (Castile’s) face, saying it was a question of dignity, but showed his bloody T-shirt, while half blurred the T-shirt but not his face, thus proving that we actually don’t know what we are trying to blur out, what we are trying to stop,” Wardle said.

For Rackham student Ta’les Love, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in communications studies, the video of Castile was gruesome in its nature, but she said she understood why a news organization would rush to share it after it elicited such extensive talk online.

“From a journalism standpoint, they are sharing these videos in the competitive nature of wanting to be the number one organization, to get the story out there first,” Love said.

Wardle asked the room who they thought owned the content they posted on social media sites — those who share the content or the social media companies. The majority of attendees answered that they believed the sites did, but, in fact, Wardle said the users who take the photos and videos are the lawful owners of the content. This misconception as to who owns the content is indicative of the lack of understanding among social media users as to what their rights are and how news organizations should go about asking them for their content.

“You may have seen that Facebook has said, ‘Ooh, can we sometimes use your pictures for our marketing?’ which we all have to sign up to when we sign up to the devil that is Facebook, but it means that you own the content,” Wardle said. “Consent versus informed consent is actually the most important part of this.”

Megan Ankerson, communications studies assistant professor and attendee, said owning content posted on social media sites also means individuals, rather than the sites themselves, are held liable for copyright infractions.

“Pinterest is a site where people seemingly own everything but the burden of copyright is put on the person so Pinterest can’t get in any trouble,” Ankerson said. “The biggest problem is that companies have commercial-oriented visions that are responsible for the content.”

Not only has social media fundamentally changed the way in which breaking news is reported, Wardle said, but it has also changed the way in which journalists receive public opinion on major issues.

As newsrooms see their workforces shrink due to financial pressures, there is an increased reliance on social media gauging public opinion instead of people.

Wardle said while classic methods of knocking on doors and calling sources will remain central aspects of journalistic work, social media also serves as a supplemental tool for journalists to tap into veins of discussion and groups of politically inclined people that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible through older journalistic methods.

“There was a sense that (Trump’s) win might be coming …. but journalists were not watching those communities that voted for him,” Wardle said.

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