Schiller, Folkenflik: Social media gives the people tools of communication

Vivian Schiller, chief digital officer for NBC News, and David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent, speak at the morning lecture program Tuesday in the Amphitheater. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Social media has helped shape democracy by providing people with the means of communication to gain more access to information.

“I think it is good for democracy, because the tools of communication are in so many more people’s hands,” said Vivian Schiller, senior vice president and chief digital officer at NBC News, during Tuesday’s morning lecture.

Schiller and David Folkenflik, who served as moderator and is NPR’s media correspondent, discussed the challenges and opportunities facing digital and social media at the Amphitheater for Week Six, themed “Digital Identity.”

Social and digital media became prominent about four years ago. In that time, it has become a tool for individuals to express their thoughts, for news organizations to cover news and for candidates to campaign and interact with others.

Social media platforms, such as Twitter, have enabled candidates and news organizations to have a two-way dialogue with their audience. That benefits society, democracy and journalism, Schiller said.

“It’s a fantastic tool to be able to tap into public sentiment and sort of dissect the issue to help inform the public,” she said.

Through Twitter, information spreads quickly, and individuals can easily gain support for or against a cause. But that can also create a “ganging up mentality,” Schiller said.

When Susan G. Komen for the Cure made the decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood in January, the news spread through Twitter, Schiller said.

“In the age of Twitter,” she said, “it doesn’t take much for a few activists to say, ‘Folks, look at what’s happening,’ and it took off like a rocket ship.”

Social media has also become an outlet for individuals to participate in conversations and to express criticism.

In light of the Olympics, NBC has been criticized on Twitter for several reasons, Folkenflik said. In one instance, people in the United Kingdom criticized NBC for omitting an interpretive dance that served as a tribute to those killed in the July 7, 2005, London terrorist attacks, he said.

In another instance, Schiller had retweeted, or shared, another person’s tweet. The tweet mentioned people complaining about NBC’s time delay. Her action led individuals to direct their anger toward her, she said.

“Somehow that tapped a public sentiment or a public anger about the tape delays that NBC is experiencing,” Schiller said, “and a lot of that was directed at me.”

Schiller said the retweet did not reflect the belief she and NBC have about the way they should interact with audiences.

It is critical for news organizations to listen to what people are saying on Twitter, Schiller said.

“I do listen to be respectful of people’s opinions, just to take it in, to make changes as a result,” she said.

Social media also comes with challenges.

Folkenflik asked Schiller how people can find the information they need to be good citizens as new platforms develop and when fewer people participate in watchdog and accountability journalism.

As individual consumers, people need to ask the questions editors and reporters would ask: Who is providing the information? What is their agenda? Who are the sources?

Does what editors and reporters filter remain unfiltered in social media? Schiller asked.

Schiller is the founding chair of News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that sends journalists to schools to teach children how to consume information using critical thinking skills rather than assuming what they read is true.

“I think this is a new, important discipline that our education system needs to instill in order for people to be active and informative citizens of the democracy,” she said.

NBC News recently launched NBC Latino, a website dedicated to Latino news. NBC has a similar website for African-Americans called TheGrio.

Schiller said NBC News has two responsibilities. One is to its shareholders, the other is to the citizens of the country. She said NBC Latino fulfills both.

On the commercial level, she said, the Latino population is fastest-growing population in the country, and advertisers are interested in reaching out to them. It is also an important project for NBC News, because it must serve a diverse audience, Schiller said.

The news organization as a whole has benefited, because it has become more finely attuned to stories interesting to Latino and African-American audiences, Schiller said.

“We feel that it is our responsibility to serve all audiences in this country,” she said, “regardless of point of view, perspective and where they’re coming from.”

Folkenflik said conversations and readers’ comments can encourage producers and reporters of NBC Latino and TheGrio to find stories they would not have otherwise thought of for those audiences.

The digital age has benefited news organizations by providing individuals an outlet to give feedback and be heard.

“I will tell you there is not one thing that NBC News, or NPR, or The New York Times or any news organization reports that someone in the audience doesn’t know more about than we do,” Schiller said. “That is just a fact.”


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why do you think it is consumers have decided that content — when it appears online — has no monetary value? Was there a defining moment when that just became self-evident?

Vivian Schiller: I’m trying to figure out what the subtext of that question is. I don’t know if the reader’s talking about information that is to be paid for and pirated — that’s a whole separate issue that probably somebody more expert on the issues would ….

David Folkenflik: Deal with the text.

VS: OK. Sorry, I’m over-interpreting, oh god! Why do people feel that content online has no monetary value? Well, I guess because if you don’t have to, maybe your decision is, “Why would I pay for something that I can get for free?” I think that certainly plays into it. There is also a sense, I think, that folks have about journalism that it is a public service and public value, and we in news organizations support that effort, so perhaps it doesn’t need to be paid for. It kind of belies the reality of how much it costs to run a news organization and to send reporters around the world. But it’s also not entirely true, because we do make money on our online content. Our is a profitable venture, which is a good thing, because it allows us to keep it up and running — it allows us to continue to send reporters all over the world, and so, the marketplace is evolving.

DF: Let me offer two supplementary points, one of which is just the history of it. If you think back to roughly ‘96 when the Web kind of became the Web as we know it, newspapers were trying to reproduce largely what they did for their readers. The idea of charging people for something they didn’t quite understand and were unlikely to be accessing didn’t make any sense. This was a time of — think of it like Bell labs, with AT&T back in the heyday — this was a time of experimentation for the outlets that were taking it seriously and playing mild defense for those that didn’t have the money or the will to invest in it. So the idea of charging people up front and saying “this is equivalent to our print thing, but you’ve never paid for it in the past and won’t miss it in the future” didn’t make a lot of sense. Some people say that was the original sin of the news business and the original sin of journalism. I’m not sure that’s the case. I think there’s a case to be made for experimentation and figuring out what works, and that’s what people were doing. I remember at The Baltimore Sun, my and David’s very distinguished editor John Carroll, who was, I think, probably the preeminent editor of his cohort — you know, nonetheless he looked at the something like $70 million a year that The Washington Post was pouring into its website from its first days, not making a profit off its website in those days either, and saying, “I’m going to let them get it right, and then we’ll start spending some real money. In the meantime, I’m going to pay for reporting that shows up in print — that’s where our hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers are actually occurring.” The second element I’ll say is that, if you look at the online world, to some extent, it’s a little more like broadcast TV prior to cable, and prior to getting your broadcast TV through a cable or satellite provider — and that’s that there’s almost a misidentification of what the content is that you’re delivering. NBC is in the business and its people at NBC, some of whom I know pretty well, work hard to get good content, and break news and to come up with compelling stories to tell the viewers. But what NBC as a network is doing is in the process of delivering viewers to advertisers. NBC as a network is not in the business of delivering news to viewers. So the question of what’s being delivered is being misidentified. Similarly, online, if somebody like The Guardian, which has a completely free website at the moment, is trying to make a big boost into the U.S. market — because it’s a much bigger market than the U.K., but it speaks English and has some interests of commonality — they are trying to deliver English-reader consumers to advertisers, they are not trying to make money off delivering news to those people. So I think it’s a question of sort of flipping the lens of the telescope a little bit.

VS: Like I said, he was better.

Q: We have freedom of the press. Is any blogger part of “the press?” In a digital age, who is “the press?”

VS: That is a simple question with a complicated answer. And I think different people would answer it differently, and perhaps David and I might even answer it differently — I’ll be curious to hear what he says. To me, there are certain fundamentals about who can and should consider themselves a journalist, and it has nothing to do with working for some big famous news organization. It has to do with the way you go about your business. It has to do with the principles of journalism — that has to do with fairness toward the issues and people and subjects you’re reporting on. It has to do with research and fact-checking, and multiple sources, not just one source. I guess I would say those are the primary issues. And if a blogger, whether they are the proverbial, apocryphal blogger in their pajamas sitting in the apartment, or whether it is someone who works for a large, well-funded digital website — to me, that is not the issue. The issue is how they treat their subjects, the seriousness with which they take their reporting. By the way, it doesn’t even have to do with coming at something with a point of view, as long as you disclose it. As long as you disclose it and you work off the facts. I quoted this in The Chautauquan Daily, but the great former senator of New York Daniel Moynihan had a quote that many of you have probably heard, but I think it bears repeating early and often, which is: “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, but not everybody’s entitled to their own facts.” And I think that is a key element with journalism today.

DF: Ken Paulson, who’s the current director of the First Amendment Center in Tennessee — an offshoot of Gannett — he reminds you that, if I’m not mistaken, that the press and the bail bondsmen are the only two professions specifically delineated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the press has sort of a central role in it. And in this country, we do not have a licensing body, so you can just show up one day and say you want to be a journalist. Now, it doesn’t mean you’ve got a job, but it means you can do it if you want. There are people from non-journalistic endeavors — I mentioned Melissa Harris-Perry. She’s not an opinion host on MSNBC, she’s a journalist, she writes for The Nation, but her full-time paycheck comes from Tulane University. She can be a journalist. Skip Gates at Harvard University — he used to write for The New Yorker. He’s one of the most distinguished scholars of Afro-American history, he’s at Harvard, and he can be a journalist, too. Jerome Groopman writes on medical issues for The New Yorker, similarly. Journalists don’t have to be full-time journalists; they don’t have to be paid at all. I think it’s the question of what contribution people offer to public discourse, but if somebody wants to be a journalist, they can, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good at it. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re fair at it. That’s true of people inside major newsrooms, as well as people who are working at home. Too hot this summer for bloggers to be working in their pajamas, but nonetheless, people come in a lot of different stripes. That’s fine. It’s messy, it’s discordant, —I think that’s the nature of American democracy. And I think that social media — people taking part on Twitter in particular, on Tumblr, on other places where it doesn’t cost them a thing to set up what would have been a printing press in the past — they can participate in a wider conversation. Let me give you an example of this. A young woman I interviewed when she was an undergraduate at USC — and she was intent on becoming a journalist I might add, so she had that advantage — but she helped run the online student publication. She wanted to take part. She got involved on Twitter. She tweeted these events happening when this Jewish temple started burning in the Upper East Side in New York. She made contacts with people who were following her who are major journalists. Right now she’s the deputy publisher, at the age of 23, of the website Talking Points Memo, the liberal political online organization. Pretty fascinating rise for someone so young, but she did it in part because the intelligence and the acuity of her tweeting, as well as her journalistic training at USC. So she may have had a leg up on the average amateur, but she’s pretty young ,and she’s done a good job just through something that cost her nothing, as well as the education that cost her probably a hundred-and-a-half thousand dollars.

Q: Given the speed of online news, how does NBC digital balance the pressures of being first with being right?

VS: This is a great question — thank you to whoever asked it. There is, to me, an inexplicable race to report information that, really, is available to anyone at a certain point to report it first. This is what leads to trouble. We were on the local Chautauquan radio show earlier, and David told the story that you’re probably all familiar with of what happened just a few weeks ago when the Supreme Court ruling on health care came down, and several, very large news organizations, one of which I used to work for — CNN, not Fox News — both of those news organizations got it wrong, because they were in such a big hurry to report a piece of information, that had they taken another, literally, minute, two minutes, three minutes, they could have gotten right. And you know what? Both the anecdotal evidence and the analysis show that audiences do not care if somebody is three seconds before somebody else. The kind of breaking news that we care about, that I care about, that I value, is the kind of breaking news where a reporter or a group of reporters does investigation, takes the time and reports the time that nobody ever knew before. And that, to me, is the kind of breaking news that we should be focusing on. Certainly we do need to report news when the Supreme Court comes down with such a historic ruling as they did on health care a few weeks ago — we need to report it expeditiously — but if we are five seconds before somebody else, it just doesn’t matter.

Q: Do you believe that Twitter and/or Facebook are representative of the general population per views on key issues, or are they being utilized by vested interest groups to push their agenda?

VS: Yes and yes, I think. All of the above. Certainly, it is a great tool for special interest groups to get the word out, there’s no question. It’s very powerful — both Facebook and Twitter. I’m on Twitter all the time, and I’ve learned a lot from Twitter. It is actually my first read in the morning when I wake up. I look at the Twitter feed to see a whole range of news and opinion. And it’s a tremendously valuable tool. Now, I think the statistics are less than 10 percent of the U.S. population is actually on Twitter, so it certainly doesn’t reflect the entirety of the population. It is not the tool, it is a tool for the dissemination of news and for discussion among groups of people across this country and across the world.

DF: But it’s also on you guys, because you choose who you follow on Twitter, you choose who you befriend on Facebook. If you’re using Facebook or Twitter as a source of people generating articles or videos that you haven’t seen before, making political points, offering you humor or satire, whatever it is, are you picking people from a broad array of viewpoints? Are you allowing the information that streams at you, rather than information that you’ve decided to consciously turn to, to be coming from a broad range of things? So Twitter can be a Johnny-one-note that reinforces everything you’ve always thought, or it can be a fire hose of all this different kind of stuff coming at you. And you get to choose how you want to align it. And as a reporter, I do the same thing. I used to have to go to 13 blogs, and read four newspapers a day, and check out all these other feeds, and do whatever, and now the first thing I do is read my Twitter feed, and then I listen to NPR, and then I read The New York Times.

VS: And then you turn on the Today Show, right?

DF: And then I go to work, and the important thing is you get to make choices, but thanks to Twitter, I know the main stories NBC has exclusives on, because it’s already been served up to me, but I make sure of that fact. And thanks to Twitter, I have an array of conservative, and liberal, and European, and Asian and all kinds of other scholars, and experts, and thought-leaders and readers who I just think are funny. It’s cool, but you have to consciously make that choice, and that’s what I think Vivian’s getting at with media literacy as well. There’s so much more information available to you, and it’s so much more of your obligation to figure out how it’s going to get to you that it was before — turning in to Walter Cronkite, who I used to say good night to before I tucked in. It’s just a different thing.

Q: There’s a bunch of questions in one area, and I’ll ask two of them, one being, would you talk about the extreme self-selection in peoples’ media consumption —

VS: I think David just answered that.

Q: — and the second is: With societies intensifying political and social polarization, what is the future of down-the-middle, mainstream media?

VS: That’s interesting. David, I think, just very eloquently talked about how it is the responsibility of all of us as citizens, no matter what our political persuasion, no matter what we believe, to listen to the voices of smart people who have alternative points of view. This is critical. I just want to second what David said. If you’re on Twitter, or whatever your platform — newspaper, television, radio — listen to alternative perspectives. Second question: down-the-middle mainstream. You know, it’s funny, as David knows, the notion of down-the-middle media has kind of been a bit of a dirty word or expression these days, because it implies vanilla, “he-said, she-said” reporting, which doesn’t necessarily give people the information they need. Taken to its worst extreme, which, by the way, I don’t think most news organizations are at their worst extreme — you could say that candidate A says this cover is green, while candidate B says that it’s pink. We have now offered both sides, there you go. Listener, viewer, reader, we have done our job to give you both sides. Well, of course, in this ridiculous example, that would be a miscarriage of journalism to not point out to the audience that one of those candidates is wrong. So, this is a fine line, honestly, and it’s something that a lot of journalists who do this so-called down-the-middle journalism are grappling with. How do you be fair to all sides while also pointing out to the viewer the facts? It is challenging, and the kind of public debate and discourse — the fact that that was asked in various ways in this room is a good thing. It will make all of journalism better.

DF: You’re also seeing, just in recent days — I think it was Friday — the head of CNN Worldwide, which is a news organization that will make approximately $600 million, resigned because he said we need new outside leadership for this organization that will have new plans, new vision, new understand of what CNN will be. CNN created, effectively, cable news. It wasn’t really first, but effectively, it’s the first American national cable news channel, and it defined it with the news as the star. No anchor would be the star. You’re turning there to turn to the news. And it really found its footing in the first Gulf War, and it really became invaluable. And then as there were competitors, particularly Fox, everyone thought MSNBC would knock CNN around because of Microsoft’s know-how, and actually it was Fox, because of Roger Ailes’ insights into what viewers might like and how a significantly sized niche felt alienated by the rest of the press. But CNN is the one that is saying we are going to be the straight-ahead news, and boy, has it lurched, and limped and shuffled around anchors like cards in a deck. And even though they’re making a ton of money, it’s not clear that they can continue to do so in that way. Now, if you think about newspapers, there’s been an active, just under the surface debate: Should newspapers become more “views papers”? That is, acknowledge, perhaps, what point-of-view they’re coming from, and pursue that, even as it does reporting. And you can look as I did stories to this effect; I went to London in late 2010 to do stories about what it’s like there. You’ve got The Telegraph on the right and The Guardian on the left, The Times of London slightly in the center, but a little bit to the right, and everyone knows where they’re coming from. There’s nothing hidden — these are very literate, smart papers. How do they work? And there are two things that are interesting: At least people know where they’re coming from, and perhaps that’s a good thing, but it’s not like circulations are rising in the U.K., they’re plummeting there too. As Americans lament, “Well, maybe it’s that our newspapers aren’t acknowledging where they’re coming from, like Fox and NBC, maybe that’s the thing.” Well, I’m not sure that it’s working any better in the U.K. from the bottom line. In reality, if you think about straight news, it’s an accident of history. The Associated Press as I understand it — if you think about coverage of the Civil War, it wanted people in different parts of the country — that is, different editors — to subscribe to it no matter where the newspaper’s ideology and sympathy was rooted. And so they just did it as neutrally as possible so they would be inoffensive as they reported the news. Similarly, in major American cities, as newspapers got closer to a monopolistic hold on that particular region, they didn’t want to defend any readers. The way I think it was best expressed was by Michael Jordan, who was asked why he didn’t endorse any candidates for office and make himself heard, particularly for fellow African-American candidates in North Carolina, his native state. And he said Republicans and conservatives buy Nikes too. And the man’s got a point. So that’s kind of how newspapers evolved in terms of being straight ahead. It was a commercial imperative that became an ethical guideline, and so you’re seeing a lot of things thrown in flux by virtue of the age we’re in.

Q: Digital media has a broad palette or toolbox. Video, photo galleries, text, podcasts, original content. Which have you found most effective, and does it vary by topic?

VS: Oh my goodness, what a great question. All of it! This is the glass-half-full part of digital media. We have so many different tools at our disposal to help inform and enlighten the audience. It is a very exciting thing. And I don’t choose one over the other. It depends on the story and on most stories — we’ll try to give it to you every which-way. If there is a major story, it will be on nightly news, we will have that video on, we’ll have still photographs. There is a power, and a poetry and an impact to still photographs that is very different than video, so we love still photography, even though we are a television news organization and we love video, too. One of the most exciting tools in our digital toolbox now is interactive graphics. By this, I mean things that by using data, we can create interactive tools so that you could input information and see what happens. One example is we have an iPad app for NBC politics, and we have a map of the country where you can input which way you think each state will go and see the different outcomes. And you can compare it to what some of our analysts and our reporters have done, and make different outcomes. And it’s a very interesting tool that helps the audience understand the impact and power of certain swing states. There are so many tools at our disposal, and I just love using all of them, frankly.

Q: Can you speak about the Occupy movement? Was it, is it affected by technology; is this the precursor of things to come?

VS: Wow, well I think with the Occupy movement, you’re seeing a lot of the things we’ve been talking about for the last hour and a half come into play, which is the power of people who are not part of mainstream news organizations, or who are not politicians who can draw a crowd of people to be able to make a statement, to galvanize support. Frankly, it is the same thing with the Tea Party movement. It’s the same thing in terms of the ability to try to organize people, galvanize support, make your voice heard, regardless of what your issue is. So I think that both entities were creatures of the fact of digital and social media, they were made possible by digital and social media, and have also had an impact on digital and social media. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.

DF: For example, if you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when the mainstream press really started to pay attention was after somewhere captured — probably on their iPhone but certainly their mobile phone, smartphone — footage of several protesters who were just sort of peacefully standing, some of them chanting or yelling, but getting beaten or sprayed with pepper spray by cops who were coming by. In the absence of these images, the press would have thought these are kind of noisy kids complaining, which certainly was one reaction to that movement, and at the same time, you could see with your eyes the cavalier-ness with which some of the senior police officials were treating these people, exercising their First-Amendment rights to protest. That became very compelling. The New York Times sort of changed the tenor of what was a national and very local story for it, and that led networks and others to follow. So that was a way in which social media carried out by the people participating in the acts themselves, or in some cases, witness, led to more professional coverage by more established media outlets.

—Transcribed by Leah Harrison

Update: This story has been updated to correct a quote by Vivian Schiller.