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Rory O'Connor Headshot

Word of Mouse

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I spent much of last fall at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government as a Fellow at the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy. While there, I researched issues related to journalism, trust and credibility - and in particular what role emerging social media might play in addressing those concerns. Here's the latest in a series of posts on the topic of emerging media and journalism.

On August 29, 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain announced that he had chosen Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, as his running mate. The surprising choice of the little-known Palin captured the nation's attention; her status as just the second woman ever to run on a major party ticket was but one among many reasons. Interest in America's long and hotly contested electoral campaign soon began to reach a fevered pitch.

Several days later, I received a message from a journalist and trusted friend via Facebook, the online social network. Her characteristically brief "Check this out!" introduction referred to the forwarded text of an email from Anne Kilkenny, a woman neither of us knew. Kilkenny resides in the small Alaskan city of Wasilla, and her message concerned a woman she knew well -- Wasilla's former mayor Sarah Palin. "Dear friends," Kilkenny's email began. "So many people have asked me about what I know about Sarah Palin in the last 2 days that I decided to write something up."

A homemaker and regular attendee at Wasilla City Council meetings, Kilkenny had witnessed at first-hand much of Palin's meteoric political rise. She wrote in considerable detail about Palin's record during her six years as Wasilla's mayor, and included a reasonably balanced 'CLAIM VS FACT' assessment ("gutsy: absolutely!") of Palin's personality and politics. The sharp, informative twenty-four hundred word missive was meant to help inform forty of Kilkenny's friends. But as the Los Angeles Times reported a month later, "More than 13,700 e-mail responses and half a million Google hits changed all that."

Kilkenny had told her friends to feel free to pass her e-mail along - and they did, sending it to their friends, who in turn then redistributed it in a variety of ways, including blogs, Web sites, and social networks such as Facebook. Moving at the speed of light, the now 'viral' email soon landed on my computer desktop - and millions of others all over the globe. "Who is Sarah Palin?" the world wanted to know, and "Who is Anne Kilkenny?" Moreover, was she -- and the information in her email - at all credible?

Before I could check, however, a second email about Sarah Palin also rocketed around the Internet and into millions of In Boxes - including mine. Forwarded by a different friend, this email supplied a "list of books Palin tried to have banned" from the local library during her tenure as mayor of Wasilla. The information, if true, had the potential to harm Palin's vice-presidential candidacy almost before it began. But was it?

Two emails had been sent to me by two friends: each purported to deliver credible news vital to an informed democratic decision; each became an instant Internet sensation, rapidly replicated and exponentially amplified by new, so-called "Web 2.0" social media, which combined to propel it into an ongoing national conversation. Considered together, they exemplify two clear trends. The first is that online emerging media -- including 'viral' emails, blogs, social networks like Facebook and MySpace, and other new platforms such as the video site YouTube and the micro-blogging Twitter service -- are increasingly used by individuals and groups to filter and transmit news and information. The second is that it is now more difficult than ever to separate fact from fiction and 'truth' from 'spin' in any form of media, legacy or emerging.

We live in a media-saturated era, one in which news and information from a wide range of sources is readily available to most Americans for the first time in history. This unparalleled information access, although empowering, is also disruptive and presents its own unique set of issues and challenges, both to journalists and to society as a whole. Facing a virtual tsunami of unfiltered information -- powered by an ongoing technological revolution that has democratized tools of media production and distribution, created by an unprecedented amalgam of increasingly beleaguered professional journalists and newly besotted amateur 'citizen reporters,' and distributed via a wide variety of both traditional and new media -- how can any of us be sure that the news and information we see and hear is true? Which reports and reporters can we trust and rely on to be credible? How can we find them amidst the clangor and the clutter of 'TMI' -- too much information?

Although Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman and chief executive officer, recently denounced the Internet as a "cesspool of misinformation," examples of misinformation, disinformation, inaccurate reporting, fake news, phony news releases, pay- for-play punditry, and a host of other media malpractices are prevalent offline as well. As a result, public confidence in the news media as an institution has been declining for years. A 2008 Gallup poll, for example, shows that fewer than one in four Americans have a "great deal or a lot" of confidence in either television news or newspapers -- down from about one of three in 2004. A Zogby poll later in 2008 showed similarly widespread distrust; nearly three-fourths of those surveyed believe that the news they read and see is biased and not credible.

While still trusted more than Congress, (traditionally the nation's least trusted institution,) the media are clearly beset by this growing lack of public confidence. This negative assessment of trust and credibility is shared by those on both the right and left of the political spectrum, who seldom agree on much else. But journalism's trust issue is not just a problem for journalists. The breakdown in the relationship between journalists and the "people formerly known as the audience" presents a serious social challenge. If we cannot ensure that we are receiving credible news and information, the ramifications for our democracy, which depends on an active, informed citizenry, are enormous.

Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon in the rise of emerging media. Numerous public opinion surveys show that the use of new social media is rapidly expanding in all demographic groups -- although it is predictably highest among the " Digital Natives" aged 18-29. A recent Pew Research Center survey, for example, shows that Americans increasingly get their news from multiple sources. More than one-third use Internet-based sources such as Web sites, blogs, and social networking sites, and only a minority rely entirely on traditional sources, including print, radio, television, and cable news. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism's "2008 State of the News Media" report notes, "Americans are going online more frequently, spending more time there and relying more on search and links rather than brand-name destinations to navigate the Web," and, "The Web is becoming a more integral part of people's lives. Eight in 10 Americans 17 and older now say the Internet is a critical source of information -- up from 66% in 2006." The survey shows that Americans increasingly identify the Internet as a more important source of information than television, radio and newspapers. Fully one third of Americans now say the Internet is the "most essential medium."

Meanwhile, a new wave of research into emerging media, information delivery and web credibility is threatening to upend the conventional academic wisdom that social networks tend less to persuasion and more to polarization, fragmentation and reinforcement of prior beliefs. Online social media networks, researchers suggest, possess certain unique characteristics that enable them to act as credibility filters, thus introducing elements of trust and persuasion to the delivery of news and information.

(Coming Next: New Media's New Breed of Researchers)