On Friday, the Ann Arbor chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists hosted four panelists at the Ann Arbor District Library for their discussion, titled “Social Media, Politics and the Fourth Estate,” to share their opinions on the fluctuating relationship between politics, social media and reporting.
Panelists included U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., Seema Mehta, political writer for the Los Angeles Times, Alex Kellogg, award-winning journalist and regular contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, and Daniel Rivkin, communications strategist and former Reuters bureau chief manager.
Alexa St. John, SPJ President and former Editor in Chief of The Michigan Daily, began the discussion by asking how panelists felt about social media bridging the gaps were many media outlets failed.
Dingell said social media was proving to do more harm than good.
“I think while social media started to unite us, it is dividing us,” Dingell said. “I think this country is being divided and this world is being divided by fear and hatred. It’s a place where people can post comments and rhetoric that’s just so unacceptable, so divisive, so vitriolic.”
Rivkin said he understands the fast pace of social media can be satisfying and the variety of information can be helpful.
“Initially with social media, I found the same serendipity with social media that I found in a newspaper,” Rivkin said. “I had an interesting news feed of friends who would share things that I might not have seen.”
Kellogg and Mehta agreed with Rivkin about how the anonymity of social media has drastically increased negative traffic to their published articles. Kellogg said writing an article focused on a person rather than a movement can help decrease the comments.
“I remember being a local reporter in the suburbs (in Detroit) covering the city for a national audience and there would be a lot of ignorant comments,” Kellogg said. “One of the things I found valuable as a reporter was humanizing stories, writing about everyday people, because those people are sort of unimpeachable, it’s hard to argue against someone that’s doing something … extraordinary.”
Mehta discussed how the job of a reporter has changed since she entered the field. She shared how she is constantly asked to live-tweet and snapchat events.
“I feel like every cycle has just gotten faster and faster,” Mehta said. “It’s good in some ways and bad in some others. As a reporter you’re expected to do a lot more now, I feel like, than you were before.”
She admits quickly spreading information can be good, but it can also get in the way of developing longer stories.
“I worry that it leaves a lot less time to do the longer, more thoughtful pieces because you’re so obsessed with getting every little bit out there,” Mehta said.
When asked what advice she would give to young reporters, Dingell said they need to have intellectual curiosity and understand the importance of having a free press.
“Ask questions, care about an issue, connect with people, learn how to write, you got to know how to write and then you got to learn communication skills,” Dingell said. “The freedom of press, to me, is so fundamental. It shines a light on democracy.”
She also spoke about how Mexican journalist and University of Michigan Knight Wallace Fellow Emilio Gutiérrez Soto – who has written about corruption in Mexico – is being threatened with deportation. On March 13, Dingell and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. wrote a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking to halt the scheduled deportation of Gutiérrez. At the panel, Dingell said she believes he should be granted asylum for properly exercising his freedom of press.
“That’s what freedom of the press is about, be willing to take a risk and shine a light on truth,” she said. “And we in this country need to be willing to defend that fundamental right and not send somebody back.”
St. John was very happy with the organization’s event and said she picked the panelists to ensure the information shared would be from many different perspectives.
“We were very intentional with the panelists,” St. John said. “We really wanted a diverse set of perspectives in a number of ways, both in terms of professionally and in terms of their experiences.”