A column in London's The Guardian a few days ago asked if Facebook is the leading threat to newspapers and, more broadly, journalism itself. The writer, Roy Greenslade, said that by luring away readers and advertisers, the social media site is jeopardizing newspapers and, at the same time, narrowing the news agenda, which he says poses a threat to journalism.
The issue of losing readers and advertisers is something newspapers have been facing for decades, beginning when TV became the dominant media form. But over the past 15 years or so, newspapers find themselves in the same basket as other "traditional" media including TV, as digital has taken over. Most papers have embraced, perhaps reluctantly at first, digital with branded sites of their own. They're still struggling to find a way to monetize their news sites, and digital ads so far have not fully replaced print ads in terms of how much advertisers are willing to pay for them.
What's a newer issue, though, is the impact Facebook is having on what we perceive as news and the accuracy of what gets reported. The Pew Research Center published a study a few months ago showing that 66 percent of Facebook users get their news via Facebook. True, that's not 66 percent of the U.S. population, but with an estimated 60 million American Facebook users, it's still a very big number -- roughly 40 million people. And as we know, it's not just Millennials on Facebook -- in fact, almost all of my Boomer friends are on Facebook to some degree.
So with 40 million people reading Facebook, here's where the problem lies, as articulated in the Guardian story. What's considered news on Facebook is not determined by traditional journalistic standards After coming under criticism earlier this year, Facebook adjusted the algorithms it uses to determine what's "trending." But "trending" is still largely based on what people are posting about, so if the Brangelina split trends high because it's juicy gossip about a big celebrity couple, it may push off the radar legitimate but less sexy news like the plight of refugees leaving Syria or starvation and slavery in some parts of Africa or the continuing erosion of the Arctic ice shelf.
To make it worse, other news sources including many of the "traditional" media like the networks and major newspapers now look at what's trending on Facebook to help determine what they report.
And there's another risk to relying what's reported as news on Facebook. News can easily be manipulated, with information that's bogus attributed to normally reliable sources. It then gets shared and reposted, taking on a life of its own as real news. I saw an example of this just a few weeks ago when a friend shared an article about saying something outrageous Trump supposedly said. I'm not a Trump supporter at all, but this seemed just too crazy ...even for Trump. The article referred to a story in The Washington Post, but when I searched the WaPo site, no such story existed. But there it was on Facebook, something obviously incorrect being passed along as real news with the Washington Post referenced as the source.
So yes, Facebook poses a real threat to the health of other news media. But the larger threat is the potential damage its misuse can do to the journalistic process -- a process that the Constitution recognizes as an important way to keep us informed and our politicians and business leaders honest.