Watching journalism’s social media divide

June 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Most media organisations have made the change to the digital world but there’s an evident tension about the social web that keeps many editors up at night.  This conflict at the heart of journalism in the digital era reveals itself in stories by journalists about journalists.

There’s constant debate within journalism about the future of journalism and that’s a healthy thing. One of the most fascinating discussions going is how should the news media adapt to constantly changing technology and popular social media platforms.

It’s too simplistic to call it an argument between the digital natives and the digital dinosaurs. Most journalists I know have embraced the internet although many traditionalists scoff at Wikipedia as a news resource and deride the amateur driven social web.

Take this recent story by New Zealand Herald media journalist John Drinnan which is instructive for revealing the kind of tension that exists in the news media around social media.

When TVNZ’s Saturday morning current affairs programme featured an interview with Phil Goff, political editor Guyon Espiner channelled chatter on Twitter in a searching interview of the Labour Party leader.

Espiner said: “Ok. I’m already getting feedback in my ear from the producer saying people are Twittering and emailing us at the moment saying, ‘Hey, we want to know what Labour’s going to do.’ Would you restore this programme? This is what our viewers are saying. Can you give them an answer, Mr Goff?”

Drinnan, who may well be a social media sceptic, made it clear from his story, which also sought the views of journalism and media studies lecturers Jim Tully and Donald Matheson, this was a risky practice. He wrote “a fascination with social media is creeping in to all media as growing legions of readers, listeners and viewers spend more time online”.

Both Tully and Matheson pointed out that journalists needed to be cautious in referencing comments made on social media because of the dangers of anonymous or unidentified sources. Matheson said journalists needed to be more literate about social media and warned against the impulse to use social media as barometers of public opinion.

All of this just highlights that natural scepticism and objectivity are disciplines that journalists should apply in how they go about prosecuting a story. To say journalists are at greater risk of coming unstuck by referring to comments on Twitter smacks of getting things back to front.

If journalists repeat what they see on Twitter and present it as a true and accurate reflection of an issue then there’s a problem with journalism, not with social media. It also overlooks the qualities that make Twitter, well, Twitter.

Twitter works for its users because it is instantaneous and spontaneous. It can also be flippant or serious minded, phony or factual. Despite what Drinnan says, this isn’t about how “twitterers” want a piece of the traditional media but how the traditional media needs it to meet increased audience expectations of being allowed to participate. Isn’t the ability to interact almost the whole point of the web?

What Guyon Espiner did in his interview with Phil Goff was hardly a hanging offence. He referred to Twitter and email feedback as a nod to the programme’s online audience and to give a live immediacy to the interview.

While it was a tentative attempt by Q&A to embrace a more participatory ethos, it is a sign that some journalists and news producers understand the big lesson the internet is teaching us. We the audience are just not as satisfied as we used to be with a medium that broadcasts at us. The media many of us are integrating into our daily lives is a more spontaneous organism that grows on participation and mass amateurism and the evidence can be found all over the web.

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