Wednesday, 24 April 2013

What's wrong with this picture?

As you may know, I'm an enthusiastic Twitterer. I follow and converse with all sorts of people: journalists, academics, readers, politicians and anonymous interesting people. I've found it invaluable in my academic work and in helping political campaigns. It's also a great outlet for my sarcastic and unfunny one-liners.

But the strengths of Twitter are also its weaknesses. Speed is a strength, but also a serious weakness, particularly in the case of breaking news. Yesterday, someone hacked Associated Press's feed, announcing a bombing in the White House. Cue panic on the stock markets. In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, thousands of Twitterers posted pictures of Sunil Tripathi, claiming him to be a suspect: one racist assumption led to the demonisation of a man guilty of nothing more than being brown in a public space. He is now missing, and some news outlets are claiming that police think a body pulled from a river could be his.

A few months ago, a Conservative lord was named in thousands of Tweets as a predatory paedophile without a shred of evidence. On a lighter note, last week saw liberal Twitterers claiming that the Sun was faking pictures of the Thatcher funeral crowd, because a building in the background looked like the unfinished Shard, which opened months ago. In fact, it was another building entirely.

So we know that the desire to jump on a bandwagon can – maliciously or not – lead to terrible consequences. Twitter isn't the forum for mature reflection: it's about instantaneous, widely-disseminated reaction. In the hands of non-professional news-gatherers, it should be accorded the same reliability as gossip overheard in the pub: sometimes true, often inaccurate, usually fascinating.

But professional news organisations have a different duty. In the days when newspapers appeared weekly, then daily, writers had the opportunity to investigate a story, establish the facts, consider the implications. 24 hour news sped up the process, and errors started to creep in, as well as hoaxes taking advantage of the media's desperation to fill up the space. Getting there first became far more important than getting things right. Where TV goes, newspapers follow – on the internet, there's little distinction.

Which brings me to the Daily Mail. Its owner, Lord Rothermere, whose Wiltshire mansion is actually in France for tax purposes (very patriotic), said this to Journalism Weekly:
Twitter is a major form of primary source material for us and the guys on Mail Online try and turn around stories from Twitter in about three minutes. So the timeliness of news is becoming much more important and journalists have to learn a lot more different skills in understanding that – and they are.
Sadly, the noble Lord fails to explain what these skills are. But this statement worries me. Certainly Twitter is a useful network, but it can only be a secondary source. As far as I'm aware, journalists' jobs include going out there to find stories. But in Rothermere's model, the stories come to people sitting at HQ.

The idea that a news story can be researched, verified and written in three minutes is antithetical to the notion of informative journalism. There's no reflection, no consideration of implications – not even time for a phone call to verify, or to check a story with the in-house lawyers. It leaves the newspaper entirely vulnerable to the whims of a mischievous public. There's no actual journalism at play: simply desperate reaction to whatever's caught the eye of the Twittersphere.

If I were running a newspaper, on- or off-line, I'd be running a mile from this rubbish. Sure, it gets lots of people clicking on the Mail's misogynistic website, and makes the advertisers very happy. But in this race to the bottom, the Mail can only lose over the long term. A newspaper should play to its strengths: verified news, supported by informed comment by experts written when the facts are in. Any idiot can spread rumours, whereas a newspaper has the people and resources to be authoritative (if it wants to be). Otherwise it's just a shell and a list of hyperlinks with no authority whatsoever. More than that: the Mail's new model is dangerous. It leads to witch-hunts, panics and untruths. No doubt the Mail is careful to use lots of 'according to' and 'claims that', but they'll be legally responsible for whatever they print. Their lawyers must be terrified by Rothermere's new approach.

But the truth is that the Mail and papers like the Mail don't care. They want hits: if that means error and distortion, so be it.

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