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Skeptics, conformists & activists: how and why journalists use social media

When it comes to using social media, there are three main categories of journalist suggests a recent paper published in the journal Digital Journalism. These categories provide insight into why journalists use tools like Facebook and Twitter and why social media may be creating a new professional digital divide between users and non-users.

There are the media professionals who wholeheartedly and enthusiastically embrace social media; those with a practical view that social media are necessary tools for the job of a modern journalist; and the “skeptical shunners” who remain unconvinced.

Titled The Social Journalist: Embracing the social media life or creating a new digital divide?, this paper was authored by researchers Ulrika Hedman and Monika Djerf-Pierre at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. It arises from a survey of 2,500 Swedish journalists conducted in 2011/2012.

Continuously Reinventing Itself

The paper begins by looking at the existing literature on the role of the professional journalist in the context of social media. Platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter can be seen as hostile ground for the media professional, where “traditional journalistic values are questioned” in the face of an emerging grassroots network of citizen journalists; anyone can break news using their mobile phone.

On the other hand social media can augment the journalist and the newsroom; it can become a new space within which to operate and even help redefine what it means to be a journalist. Ultimately, the existing literature points to the notion that “journalism continuously reinvents itself” (Deuze 2005, p.447) while normalising social media activity to conform to existing professional practices i.e. act like a tech geek but think like a journalist!

In fact, a 2005 content analysis of US political journalistic bloggers found that in terms of how these writers view themselves, it’s business as usual but using a different medium. This is interesting because it points to an ideological distinction between a journalist that blogs on a topic and a blogger that writes on the same topic.

transparency is described as a new norm, if not *the* new norm

So what has really changed? The authors say “transparency is described as a new norm (if not the new norm) in journalism” now that interaction with the public, time stamps and other factors that expose previously hidden journalistic practices have become the norm.

Blurring of lines is also a key theme here. The line between producers and consumers of content is blurring with the advent of UGC (User Generated Content) as is the line between public and private personas as journalists often mix social media updates on news items with personal comments, and finally, the line between work and leisure hours has been removed with internet-connected mobile devices and the demands of the 24/7 breaking news cycle.

Survey Findings

This was a postal survey carried out into conjunction with the SUJ (Swedish Union of Journalists). Out of a total of 17,500 members a random sample of 2,500 was selected. The survey contained questions across a range of topics including: age, gender, education, income, professional values, work experiences, political opinions and social media use. The net response rate was 60%.


  • Private social media use (at least a few times monthly) – 90%
  • Professional social media (at least a few times monthly) – 85%
  • Private social media (daily basis) – 65%
  • Professional social media use (daily basis) – 44%
  • Professional social media use “all of the time” – 10%
  • Compose Twitter posts (at least a few times monthly) – 26%
  • Read Twitter posts (at least a few times monthly) – 55 %
  • Use of networking site e.g. Facebook (at least a few times monthly) – 83%
  • Read blog(s) (at least a few times monthly) – 89%
  • Write blogpost(s) (at least a few times monthly) – 20%

Significantly, the survey found that only 1% of all journalists were blogging “all the time” and only 2% said they were tweeting “all the time”. But who are these social media savvy journalists? Is there a typical profile? Predictably it was found that the youngest group of journalists (29 and younger) were most active; 60% of this generation are daily users of social media whereas roughly a third of those aged 60 years and above claimed to be active on social media.

Gender and location is also a factor with regular social media users tipping slightly in favour of women and urban dwellers, although the latter wasn’t found to be statistically significant. In terms of the category of journalists it was found that tabloid press journalists are more likely to be 24/7 social media users than other print journalists. This said, when all of these factors are fed into a single model, the authors found that “only type of work and age have significant effects on the level of social media usage”.

FIGURE 1: The usefulness of social media for different purposes: the proportion of all journalists who regard a specific form of usage as at least somewhat important (%). The full sample of journalists is included: N = 1412 (including those who do not use social media). Adapted from “The Social Journalist: Embracing the social media life or creating a new digital divide? ,” by U. Hedman and M. Djerf-Pierre, 2013, Digital Journalism, Published online: 07 Mar 2013.

Ambient Journalism

At the beginning of this post we mentioned that the paper explores not just the ‘who’ but the ‘why’ of journalistic social media use. Figure 1 breaks this down into distinct categories, the most prevelant being to follow ongoing discussions and find news ideas or angles. The least significant reasons for adopting social media is a requirement from management or editors, or to get feedback from colleagues. The chief reason, it seems, falls within the primary category of “information gathering”, with the secondary reason being purely for the purposes of networking or interaction. The authors claim this fits with the picture of the “ambient journalism, as people contribute to the creation, dissemination and discussion of news via social media services such as Twitter” (Hermida 2012, p.5).

Interestingly, crowdsourcing, or getting help from others in the creation of a news story, was amongst the bottom three motivations for using social media. It could be interpreted that while the “social journalist” likes to use social media for information gathering, it still remains a singular effort, and thus normalises social media use to retain the ideological distinction between journalist and blogger. It would be interesting to see if the ‘whys’ of social media use differ greatly between a web native journalist and one the views herself as traditional or formally trained journalist operating on a digital platform.

Social Media Attitudes

Following on from this, the survey tested 14 different statements related to professional journalistic ideals and norms. These statements gauged levels of agreement from those surveyed on the journalist’s societal role as being variously neutral, critics of those in power, a voice for the people, an entertainer, an educator and so on. It was found that irrespective of the frequency of their professional social media use, the survey participants held the same professional outlook.

Journalists who never use social media are far more likely to feel that User Generated Content threatens the integrity of journalism

Using social media can be a frustrating experience for some journalists. 10-15% actively avoid using social media. (Photo courtesy of Fumi Yamazaki)

Using social media can be a frustrating experience for some journalists. 10-15% actively avoid using social media. (Photo courtesy of Fumi Yamazaki)

Where the difference can really be seen is in the journalists’ attitude towards social media. Frequent users of blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. are far more likely to believe that “the traditional role of journalists is and must be transformed by social media”. This belief is independent of the age of the journalist, as is the acceptance of the blurring of boundaries between professional and private life in social media. This part of the survey is where one can begin to see the emerging ideological divide between the social media savvy and those who don’t use it at all. Specifically, those participants who never use social media were far more likely to strongly agree with the statement “User-generated content threatens the integrity of journalism” than those who sometimes or frequently used it. The vast majority (80%) of non-users also agreed or partly agreed with that statement that “journalists exaggerate the importance of (pay too much attention to) social media” while only 39% of 24/7 users felt this way.

Three’s Company

With this considered, the authors have created three new distinct categories to describe the various use of and attitude towards social media amongst these Swedish journalists. The minority of those surveyed (10-15%) are skeptical shunners who actively avoid using social media. It was found that this stance was more prevalent amongst older journalists working in print media. The pragmatic conformists use social media regularly but for specific purposes such as information gathering. They are more likely to be lurkers, reading and consuming streams of online information without contributing much themselves. From a professional standpoint they understand that social media has its uses but are conscious of the hype surrounding these new technologies and platforms. Finally, the enthusiastic activists are submerged in social media; they are more likely to be digital natives who spend much of their private and professional time updating Facebook, tweeting people, uploading to Instagram and so on. They “have fully embraced and/or submitted to the inevitability of a social media life”.

The conclusion? The journalist’s relationship with the audience has changed but her view of her profession and its role in society has not.


Deuze, Mark. 2008. “The Professional Identity of Journalists in the Context of Convergence Culture.”Observatorio (OBS) Journal 2 (4): 103–117.

Hermida, AlfredFletcher, FredKorell, Darryl and Logan, Donna. 2012. Share, Like, Recommend. Journalism Studies, 13(5–6): 815–824.


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