Off The Record…

June 14, 2011 5:24 pm

Is using social media sources lazy journalism or organic, evolved reporting?

We recently blogged about the way social media has impacted on traditional media. One of the main consumer-facing changes is that instead of interviewing sources, more and more mainstream newspapers and magazines are bypassing the ‘horse’s mouth’ and going straight to its social media footprint.

There are arguments both for and against this practice. Traditionalists claim it indicates lazy, cobbled-together journalism; modernisers say a tweet is as good a quote as any.

One issue that arises out of the discussion is whether or not the information on your Facebook wall or is an accurate representation of your views. Cherry-picking quotations to suit the flavour of an article is nothing new for journalists, yet does the fact that they can now select pieces of information from a person’s page never intended to be used in a news story (without first clarifying the quotation with them) mean that people are unfairly portrayed?

When social media comments become content

According to the Australian Journalist’s Association code of ethics, journalists ‘shall identify themselves and their employers before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast’. While accessing public information on a Facebook page or Twitter account does not necessarily flout that notion, does this mean that our social media utterances allow us all to be ‘interviewed’ on our opinions without our knowledge?

The buzz from Chris Lilley’s latest ABC TV show Angry Boys lit up social media channels during and after its debut a few weeks ago. But some tweeters were surprised to discover that their opinions had made it into the following day’s headlines without their knowledge. When Melbourne-based illustrator Arran McKenna tweeted ‘Anyone watch Angry Boys last night? Felt a little like a retread, but I enjoyed it. Keen to see how it pans out’, he hardly expected to be quoted the following morning on the ABC News website.

‘It’s like they’ve been watching me in the shower,’ he said. ‘It’s just lazy above anything. I guess it’s different with something like a TV show because it’s an instant gauge of audience reaction, but it’s still weird.’ Granted, the article was about the social media response to the show, but should sources have been contacted for consent?

Social media is changing the content game

Another argument is that social media has pushed traditional newsmakers into hastening the process of getting stories ‘to print’ (or published online, as is the case these days). During coverage of natural disasters, Twitter in particular provides a detailed and accurate portrayal of events and allows journalists to access and disseminate information far more quickly than if they were required to seek out sources.

Opinion on the ways in which journalists should and should not use social media as a source seems to be directly related to the story they’re reporting. A much-dreaded task of many a young journalist is the ‘death knock’ – the act of attempting to get a quote from the family of someone who has died. Many journalists have a moral conflict towards this unpleasant aspect of the job, not to mention the intrusion it causes for a grieving family. Social media quotes are therefore increasingly used in lieu of ‘real’ quotes.

The relationship between journalists and social media is confusing at best – and is unlikely to be clearly defined until social media itself stops evolving. Which isn’t going to happen for the foreseeable future.


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