Social media: bringing journalism's elite to heel

Brian Williams’ spectacular fall from grace as one of the most trusted American reporters bears great lessons: journalism's greats are no longer shielded from scrutiny.

Justin Salhani
19 February 2015

With powerful new social media platforms like Twitter, whispers about inaccuracies are often magnified into shouts. Flickr/mkhmarketing. Some rights reserved. 

NBC’s Brian Williams came under fire on social media, ironically for an account in which he “misremembered" literally being under fire during a 2003 helicopter ride in Iraq. This falsified account has led to a six-month suspension without pay for Williams–a fall he’s unlikely to fully recover from.

While the US military-focused newspaper Stars and Stripes first reported the story, social media played an essential role in magnifying its reach. The article’s author, Travis J. Tritter, tweeted his article, which was subsequently retweeted 75 times and freshly tweeted out by other news outlets, turning a story normally accessed by the paper’s typical 600,000 online daily visitors into a viral story that swiftly forced the NBC network to take action against its star anchor.

In recent years social media have pushed this and other stories into the public eye, helping to bring balance to the traditional power exerted by elites over media and society’s general perceptions. Social media provide a platform for amplifying inconsistencies or fallacies that would otherwise go unnoticed. It also acts as a direct link and means of communication between any user and that elite (be it an organization, company, or individual). For the first time, news is brought directly to the consumer instead of the other way around. 8% of American adults use Twitter to receive news; for Facebook, that figure is 30%. 

“Never before in the history of journalism—or society—have more people and organizations been engaged in fact checking and verification. Never has it been so easy to expose an error, check a fact, crowdsource and bring technology to bear in service of verification,” Craig Silverman wrote for the Nieman Reports, a journalism quarterly and watchdog based out of Harvard University. 

One of the largest changes that social media brought to the relationship between news producers and consumers is a reevaluation of trust in the media. In the past, journalists like Williams could rely on the power of his reputation and institution to quiet dissenters. But the emergence of platforms like Twitter gives power to the weak and a voice to the voiceless. Whispers about inaccuracies are often magnified into shouts. The perception that anything in print or broadcast on air is worthy of our unabashed confidence has been shattered, with Americans’ trust in media hitting an all-time low in 2014 at just 40%. 

Justin McCarthy observed last year: “Prior to 2004, Americans placed more trust in mass media than they do now, with slim majorities saying they had a ‘great deal’ or ‘fair amount’ of trust.” Facebook launched that same year and quickly grew to become an essential platform for news sharing. Twitter launched soon after in July 2006. McCarthy writes, “As the media expand into new domains of news reporting via social media networks and new mobile technology, Americans may be growing disenchanted with what they consider ‘mainstream’ news as they seek out their own personal veins of getting information. At the same time, confidence is down across many institutions, and a general lack in trust overall could be at play.” And as trust in faceless institutions fall, the public turns to individuals. In this manner, Williams largely personified the NBC News brand. 

Williams was considered one of the most trusted journalists in the United States. NBC recently signed Williams to a contract that would have him earning $10 million per year. In addition to the trust gained through his journalistic credentials reporting from places like Iraq and New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, part of his celebrity was built on his appearances on late night talk shows, hosting Saturday Night Live, and a recurring role as himself on Tina Fey’s “30 Rock”. Putting his idiosyncrasies on display truly endeared him to America. In the week that the scandal broke, trust in Williams plummeted. He went from being the 23rd most trusted person in America to the 835th spot, and inconsistencies in his post-Katrina accounts have also come under heavy scrutiny.

Sharing platforms like Facebook and Twitter aggravated the backlash to the story in a way that effectively shattered the trust built up by Williams over years. News organizations can no longer control which stories receive the most attention. Even if a news editor buries a story in the back of the website, a social media outlet like Facebook and Twitter can bring it to the forefront. With a recognizable name like Williams, the damage is done not just by news organizations but also by the common user who shared the story on their timeline.

Williams is neither the first journalist to exaggerate or entirely falsify events surrounding his reporting, nor would it be a stretch to predict that he won’t be the last. Williams first said in 2003 that while embedded with the US military in Iraq, the helicopter ahead of his was hit with an RPG and forced to land. At a New York Rangers hockey game, and again in his 30 January appearance on David Letterman’s “The Late Show”, Williams narrated a new version in which it was his helicopter that took the RPG. It was some of the veterans involved in Williams’ story who later revealed the story’s inaccuracies. 

The Atlantic offered a defence for Williams’ claims of misremembering, pointing to the way in which memory falters over time. Only Williams can be sure as to why he lied about his experiences. But his story is symptomatic of larger problem; some of the premier names in journalism today earned their reporting stripes in conflict zones. Think Anderson Cooper and Christian Amanpour in broadcast, and Thomas Friedman and Robert Fisk in print.  War puts forth the most tragic and most moving stories. From haunting to impassioned, war is an open house for the highest and lowest points in humanity. Journalists want to tell such stories to further their careers and gain the respect of their peers, and editors demand these stories in competition for ratings. Oversight and accuracy meanwhile take a backseat to clicks, hits, and views. 

The success of outlets like VICE show that consumers respond more excitedly when a story directly involves the journalist.  For his part, William’s tales of surviving the harsh Iraqi desert and the aftermath of a flooded New Orleans propelled his notability. But the seeds he planted bloomed with poisonous consequences.

The late New York Times media journalist David Carr, who tragically passed away last week, said it best: “We want our anchors to be both good at reading the news and also pretending to be in the middle of it.”

“That’s why, when the forces of man or Mother Nature whip up chaos, both broadcast and cable news outlets are compelled to ship the whole heaving apparatus to far-flung parts of the globe, with an anchor as the flag bearer. We want our anchors to be everywhere, to be impossibly famous, globe-trotting, hilarious, down-to-earth, and above all, trustworthy. It’s a job description that no one can match.” 

Possibly with these pressures in mind, Williams decided to create this and other stories. But as he said last week, “In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.” Williams may have seen the irony in his words. In the age of social media, mistakes are not only put under a microscope but also shouted from the metaphorical mountaintops. Williams learned this the hard way.

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