Students teach me things all the time, and they recently reminded me of a big lesson: The role of “social media,” trendy as the term may seem, isn’t new at all.
I asked the freshmen in my University of Maryland history of journalism course to describe one traditional medium and one new one that they have relied on for news.
Twitter won in a runaway as most popular new source.
But their fond stories about older media, dating back to their childhoods, proved even more intriguing. Repeatedly, students associated legacy media with family and community experiences, not just with the impersonal search for information.
They’ve clearly been enjoying media in social contexts for most of their lives.
Sharing the news at mealtime marked Hannah Burton’s “fairly regular daily routine” in Framingham, Mass. “At dinner my family would convene and discuss our days of school and work while watching Nightly News,” she recalled.
For Harris Blum of Cherry Hill, N.J., CNN was a post-dinner treat, especially the 8 p.m. newscast with Anderson Cooper, “my favorite news broadcaster.”
“When I lived at home this hour episode was usually a period of unwinding that I shared with my family after dinner,” Blum wrote.
It was a morning experience at the Germantown, Md., home of Nikki Kavounis, where CNN and Fox were “the programs that my dad would have on as we got ready for the day.”
“For as long as I can remember,” wrote Molly Podlesny of Fredericksburg, Va., “I have read my hometown paper. The Free Lance-Star taught me how to read as I sat on my father’s lap looking at the comics.”
“Even before I was in school,” Summer Bedard of Annapolis said, “I would wake up early and watch the NBC morning news show Today with my mother. I loved the show so much that I came to idolize some of the anchors, especially Katie Couric, and visited [the show] for my 10th birthday.”
Bedard’s career goal: “to one day work in 30 Rockefeller Plaza.”
Alexi Worley of Gaithersburg, Md., wants to be an investigative journalist. Here’s where that goal germinated:
“I love the smell of newspaper. It’s fresh, sophisticated, yet surprisingly familiar, as if you can smell your favorite writer’s words as they detail the latest happenings around the world. Growing up I read the Washington Post alongside my parents every morning. I was 10 and reading hotly opinionated pieces about the war in Iraq, 12 and inhaling Michael Dirda’s column for the latest book reviews. I have always loved a good story with great writing…”
Family and shared social experiences figure big in these stories. Sometimes they even transcend language, as Julia Lee, also of Gaithersburg, reported:
“CNN was always playing on the TV in my house and the house of my grandparents when I was younger. Despite my grandparents not speaking English, they relied on CNN because you could easily tell what was going on through their excellent clip choice and face expressions when reporting. The news team was always passionate…”
These familiar media also come through in crisis, as Monique Robinson, an aspiring “red carpet correspondent” from Somerset. N.J., noted:
“‘New Jersey 101.5 — proud to be New Jersey’s most listened to network’ was the tune I always loved to sing as my mother drove me around town back in NJ. This radio station was the heart of NJ’s news with politics, weather and current events across the state… Recently, this news station played a huge role in my life and the life of other NJ residents by covering the Hurricane Sandy disaster…providing necessary information that every NJ resident needed to survive. Most importantly, the radio station provided an accessible way to hear the news. Many were limited to the radio because cable lines were down….”
For these students, the transition from old to new media isn’t a clean break but a seamless stride forward. Here is how Angelo Bavaro, of Fort Lee, N.J., added Twitter dependency to his love of newspapers:
“In the seventh grade, I decided to pick up the day’s copy of my hometown’s newspaper from the sidewalk instead of watching it, once again, get kicked around by the kids who lived next door. As I flipped through the paper’s pages, I grew entranced by the bold, snappy headlines and multitude of articles covering recent local and national news. There was something so deeply compelling about being able to take a break for a moment and simply absorb the culture and happenings of the world around me.
“Reading a physical paper remains my preferred way of obtaining the news. [But now] I rely on Twitter for access to more extensive and detailed coverage… ‘Following’ major news corporations such as CNN and the Associated Press has allowed me to receive constant tweets of major news headlines and links to articles directly to my smartphone. This ‘on-the-go’ delivery of the news fits perfectly with the ‘on-the-go’ lifestyle of a college student.
“At 10:07 p.m. today, for example, a friend tweeted about a shooting in a mall near my hometown. Less than two minutes later, my homepage was flooded with updates from the New York Post and Washington Post and Associated Press regarding the tragedy. Twenty-first century technology has, literally, put the news in the palm of my hand.”
Using Twitter for both social and news connections seems a natural extension of students’ old TV and newspaper habits.
“Like many other teenagers, I enjoy using Twitter for reasons other than following the news,” wrote Alexandra Simon of Philadelphia. “But for me it is also a quick and concise way to catch up on the latest and breaking stories throughout the day. What makes Twitter such a convenient news outlet is it gives me the ability to get information from multiple sources and sites all in one place.”
Craig Weisenfeld, from Medfield, Mass., grew up with the Boston Globe and still checks its online edition because of the “sentimental factor” (“or if my parents recommend an article”). But he’s hooked on digital apps “because they are extremely concise and convenient. I do not need to seek out news – it finds me.”
Danielle Ohl, from Center Valley, Pa., worried that Twitter would be “vapid and useless,” but she changed her mind:
“In actuality, it’s a wealth of information that I have come to rely on. Though not always accurate, tweets are faster than most major traditional media…If something exciting or interesting or even catastrophic happens, I know that I will most likely have information before news stations do….Twitter informed me of everything from the Aurora shooting to the Boston bombing to the birth of Kanye West’s daughter before I read it in a newspaper or saw it on TV.”
The concepts of sharing and community carry over as the students transition to new media.
“Twitter allows news to be shared 24/7,” explained Kyle Stackpole of River Vale, N.J., “which is ultimately why it has become so popular.”
For Tucker Dell of Severna Park., Md., Twitter is “my number one news source” because “I can follow a very diverse group of people who will deliver all sorts of news to me.”
Facebook and Tumblr are favorites as well.
Christina Lopez, another student who grew up in Gaithersburg, enjoys finding news on other people’s blogs. “It is surprising,” she wrote, “how many different ways news can reach people.”
The lesson here isn’t new but it is powerful and enduring. Media don’t just connect information with people. They connect people with people.
Julia Lee summed up the role. “With social media feeding in to tell me about Miley Cyrus’s newest stunt and other more reliable sources coming to tell me about the newest crisis around the world, I’m always in the loop.”