The Social Media Effect on Political Journalism


Matt Wettengel  |  2012 Sidey Essay Winner

Today information is more accessible to more people than ever before. This increase of information has brought about higher expectations of journalism and new job descriptions for reporters. More is expected of the press. Media consumers want the traditional news stories and analyses, but exponential growth in social media use has contributed to the 24-hour news cycle initially created by television. Stories must be online as soon as possible, with all available information. Updates can be added, but timeliness has become a key component to news organizations' operations.

In his more than forty years reporting on the American presidency, Hugh Sidey was one of few members of the press who received and reported on a rare glimpse into this internationally esteemed office. Having spent time reporting on various presidents, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush, Sidey offered the American public an insightful perspective from the office that is too often characterized by press conferences and speculation.

Since Sidey's time the world has changed and journalism has struggled to keep up. The role of the reporter has changed drastically with the rise of social media. Online searches will reveal news stories based around Tweets or status updates from any politician. When Barack Obama's Twitter account tweeted his 2012 campaign's playlist, stories were created questioning how he spent his time as the standing president , but people loved the story. The separation of news and entertainment is becoming increasingly obscured and it is up to reporters to distinguish these themselves and act responsibly in their duties of informing the public in a meaningful way.

Obama himself has 12,901,710 followers on Twitter alone. Despite the fact that his staff runs his social media accounts, they create a connection between him and his followers that didn't exist as little as 8 years ago and provide a completely new dynamic to the task of reporting on the presidency. Reporters are no longer the exclusive connection between the President and the public. With this in mind, it is more meaningful now for reporters to provide what social media doesn't. Facts must be checked. Sources must be consulted. Reporting still has a place in this information-saturated world and reporting on the president is no exception.

It was the intimate moments that Sidey shared with former presidents that distinguished the work he did for Time and Life magazines. From his perspective on Nixon during the Watergate scandal to his interview with George H.W. and Barbara Bush about having their son as a president, the relationships that he established and the stories that he told added a human element to icons of American politics. His reporting worked to remove the protective lens that the office is usually shown through; Sidey's work shed light on the incredibly dynamic position that is the American presidency. He did not do this through analysis of their policies or base his work off of polls of their popularity, but rather by building relationships with them and disseminating the valuable insight that came with that and from his years of experience working in the White House.

Candidates are elected to the Oval Office based on the effectiveness of their campaigns and the popularity of their platforms. They must be the most polished and execute their public appearances flawlessly to gain rapport with voters. Once in office it becomes increasingly important to add a human element to the public's perception of their elected leader. In a 2003 interview, Sidey captured this sentiment and reflected on its importance saying, "They are not as tall or articulate as you think they should be. And they're not super people, so that is a bit of a letdown. Then you begin to understand, though, when you write about them as I have, how vital they are to the American system." It has become increasingly common for the press or public to latch on to superficial aspects of the news, like Obama's campaign playlist tweet, rather than concerning themselves with more meaningful content. Sidey's work serves as the epitome of the latter – something that current journalists should strive for.

Throughout his career, Sidey admitted that he became too close to some presidents. While this presents an ethical dilemma with his reporting, it is these strong relationships that allowed him to publish such insightful stories. The amount of time that Sidey spent with various presidents allowed him to provide a level of depth that is not easily achieved in reporting.

Transparency has become a widely used term in discussions about politics and politicians. It is also something that Sidey's work strongly promoted. Obama's 2008 campaign claimed that his administration would feature "a new level of transparency." Though his commitment meant transparency in his administration, Sidey's work touched on a different aspect of transparency, through the day-to-day happenings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and various locations he accompanied presidents to.

This level of transparency is something that seems more difficult to achieve today, as such candid access to the president is something that seems unfathomable. Sidey's connections to the nation's leaders over such an extended amount of time are inspiring. The work that he produced was heavily influenced by the rich history he had with these leaders and is something that has not since been seen in White House reporting. The stories that he produced added an unrivaled level of depth to the presidential discourse.

According to a report released by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 80 percent of people believe that news organizations are often influenced by powerful people and organizations. This same study revealed that only 25 percent of people surveyed believe that news organizations get the facts straight, while 66 percent say that stories are often inaccurate. Unfortunately, these results imply that a negative stigma is now associated with journalism. To help combat this stigma, Sidey's methods of newsgathering and reporting should be referred to in efforts to enhance the credibility of the press. Relationship building and in depth knowledge and analysis should serve as a newsgathering model rather than reliance on press releases and social media excerpts. While there is certainly room for such information and sources, relying too heavily on them does nothing to further journalism and the credibility of the craft.

In the current election year, Republican presidential hopefuls have exemplified Hugh Sidey's belief that the U.S. presidency is still "the most sought-after, analyzed and scrutinized" political office in the world. Throughout their quest to obtain their party's nomination for the 2012 election, they have been campaigning mercilessly against members of their own party to have a shot at defeating President Obama this fall. The magnitude of their efforts has surprised many, as the battle continues in the wake of Super Tuesday. Each candidate's diligence speaks to the level of esteem to which they hold the U.S. presidency and the peoples' indecision shows the genuine interest citizens share in having the right person as commander in chief.

These candidates have also clearly displayed the kinds of public scrutiny that the president faces in this age of information. Opposing campaigns are based upon the flaws of the current president and his administration and identifying these flaws and setting oneself apart from them serves as a topic in public addresses. The media also certainly plays a part in this. As Sidey said, "The legions of reporters who cover politics don't want to quit the clash and thunder of electoral combat for the dry duty of analyzing the federal budget. As a consequence, we have created the perpetual presidential campaign." His message is more relevant now than when he first spoke these words. Political coverage tends to focus on horserace politics based on public opinion polling and candidate attacks than any analysis similar to what Sidey spoke of. This is one of many challenges that need to be addressed in order for journalism to regain respect and value. Journalists have a responsibility to inform and must do so efficiently and effectively. Adaptations must be made in how this is done to make it relevant to the world audience and ensure it is disseminated as quickly as possible. Members of the media must work diligently to catch readers' shrinking attention spans and avoid just skimming the surface on issues by delving into them and telling relevant stories in effective ways. Journalism must take a more proactive stance to achieve future success. Only when such measures are taken will journalism regain the public's trust. Through his reporting, Sidey set a great example for ways in which these things can be achieved. In order to progress as an industry, we must recognize past success and use it as a basis for current and future operations in the ever-changing world of journalism.

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