Two weeks ago I saw this story on the front page of CNN's website and, for reasons that are not clear to me in hindsight, I wasted five minutes of my life reading it. It is typical human interest fare about the escalating violence in Mexico, with drug cartels shooting each other and innocent bystanders in droves while the police are (apparently) powerless to maintain order. The CNN piece focuses not on the social, economic, and political causes of the escalating violence but on a pair of poster children – two bright college-aged men gunned down in the crossfire.
I guess that's more appealing than talking about the PRI, NAFTA, and the voracious appetite of yuppies and their children for illegal drugs in the United States.
What strikes me about this story is…well, here are a few non-consecutive quotes. Let's see if anything looks odd.
"The Mexican government expresses its most deeply felt condolences to the families," the Interior Ministry said in a release on its Web page.
Separated in death, the two young men seemed inseparable in life. A Facebook page that demands justice for the slayings shows more than 30 photos of the young men and offers a snapshot of lives fully lived even at a tender age.
Mercado, an athlete, is shown working out on the rings at a gymnastics club and winning a medal and a trophy in track and field competition, where he was a pole-vaulter. Another photo shows him kneeling between two German shepherds. He's wearing a cap, blue jeans and a T-shirt and has a bemused look on his face.
Arredondo seemed more the social one, with photos of him with his arm around a young woman at what seems to be a party. Another photo shows him posing with a World Cup trophy display.
At least two Facebook pages are devoted to them: "Rest in Peace Jorge Antonio Mercado Alonso and Javier Francisco Arredondo" has more than 12,600 fans; "Javier Arredondo and Jorge Mercado – JUSTICIA! JUSTICE!" has more than 4,700 members.
Combined with the last 1/4 of the story, which consists of quoting posts on a Facebook wall, this story creates the distinct impression that the "reporter's" research consisted of looking at Facebook for a couple of minutes. He also thoughtfully visited a government website and cut-and-pasted a quote from a Minister. Nice work, Scoop McGee.
We are seeing more and more of this lamentable practice. Newspaper and TV news stories about things reporters found on Facebook. Stories in which the sources are Facebook status updates (or Twitter posts). References to Facebook to support grand generalizations about social phenomena. Mentions of how many fans such-and-such organization or politician have on Facebook. In fact, just watch the news on TV and see how long it takes before Facebook is mentioned. You need not set aside a lot of time for this experiment.
A stunning 89% of journalists told a GWU survey in January that they do story research on blogs, twitter, Facebook, and lesser social networking sites. The hottest job in the media industry is apparently "social media coordinator." Wolf Blitzer (and everyone else on CNN, possibly under threat of execution) ends every segment with a painfully awkward reminder to viewers to check out his Tweets on CNN.com. The mainstream media have an apparent love affair on their hands.
Is this reporting? Five French journalists holed up in a farmhouse in February without telephones or general internet access – their only means of communication were Twitter and Facebook. This stunt/experiment showed both the power of social networking doodads to keep them relatively well informed while also emphasizing the severe limitations. It underscores the point that social media are just another set of tools for communication. In the hands of a lazy industry, however, they're becoming more of a crutch than a tool. Developing ideas for new stories, doing research, getting quotes, and double-checking sources all mean the same thing now: check Twitter, dick around on Facebook for a while. Given that today's reporters are little more than stenographers – "Fact checking? What's that?" – this really is the logical next step. An industry this lazy can't help but take the path of least resistance, so we have a lot more quotes from Facebook walls to which we can look forward in the coming years.