11 January 2011

On Twitter and Irish Journalism

During the last European and local elections I met with a number of candidates who were looking for advice on social media, how to use it and how to integrate it into their campaigns. They had all watched with great interest the media coverage of Obama's election, and while none knew exactly what it did they all understood that social media had a big part to play in his success and were eager to replicate it here at home.

During these sessions I spent almost as much time on the negatives as the positives, hammering home the message that there is no such thing as privacy online and that everything offline can make the leap to online in the blink of an eye; the offhand or off-colour remark to a group of loyal supporters in a closed meeting can be up on YouTube in glorious HD before the meeting has even ended, journalists may be excluded from a Party conference but anybody with a smartphone can provide a running liveblog or Twitter stream to the world outside and, as we saw yesterday with Fine Gael's website, relatively small mistakes in coding can leave a website open to hijack and the resulting media embarrassment. The rule of thumb should always be that those who seek to do you harm are more tech-savvy, imaginative and motivated than you are, so always operate a policy of extreme caution. The old adage of treating every microphone as if it were live applies exponentially with social media, every person you meet is a live mic that can broadcast to the entire world.

But there is one element of it all that I got wrong, and that was the response of the mainstream media to it all. Eighteen months on from the last election and social media has, in the words of the immortal bard, moved from the being an unknown unknown to a known unknown. Most politicians in Ireland now have some form of online engagement, whether its a basic website, Facebook page or Twitter stream, and some have been enthusiastic adopters (The Greens have been very good at this, Dan Boyle, Paul Gogarty and Ciaran Cuffe have all been very busy tweeters), but the agents of traditional media are still not sure how to approach online content.

Take Dan Boyle for example. The Senator is Chairperson of the Green Party, a member of their front bench, their spokesperson on Finance, and its not unreasonable to suggest that he is the second most influential person in the party after John Gormley. And yet somehow the traditional media has adopted this notion that he is a maverick within the Party, uncontrollable and liable to say all manner of crazy things at the drop of the hat, or at least as far as his online presence goes. They react to his Tweets as if they are from a subversive element within the Party and at odds with official Party policy. They all know that everything he says online is approved by the Party (unlike Paul Gogarty presumably), yet both they and the Party play this game whereby Tweets occupy the same space as leaks, that you can throw something out in a Tweet and then distance yourself from it officially. Its as if a Tweet is the 21st century equivalent of "a source close to the party".

The ousting of Willie O'Dea by the Greens was remarkable, the first online political assassination in Irish politics. While publicly the cabinet stood united, a single Tweet by Boyle expressing his own lack of support for O'Dea forced a resignation. It allowed the Greens to flex their muscles but publicly deny that it was a Party position, it was merely the thoughts of a single maverick member. The Fianna Fail response was swift and reassuringly old school, leaking stale news to the press via a Garda about Trevor Sargent, and the press willingly played along.

Brian Cowen's disastrous "hoarse" interview at the end of the Fianna Fail conference was another interesting situation. A code of Omerta seems to be in place for many journalists who revel in the embedded nature of Irish political reportage. When the radio interview went out live and Cowen was clearly the worse for wear, no journalist commented on the issue despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that many who covered the conference were in the bar drinking with the Taoiseach until three or four that morning. It was only after Fine Gael TD Simon Coveney Tweeted that Cowen sounded drunk that the story began to develop. However the mainstream media did not report that Cowen sounded drunk, they reported that Coveney Tweeted he sounded drunk. No doubt Irish libel laws played a major role in the angle of reporting, no journalist would be willing to allege that Cowen is, *ahem*, a heavy drinker, but they are happy to report that other people allege it. Twitter facilitates this approach rather nicely.

But their application of this approach is inconsistant. Anyone logging on to Twitter in Ireland early yesterday morning would have noticed that one of the trending topics was Conor Lenihan, Junior Minister and brother of Brian Lenihan. A busy discussion on Politics.ie at the same time centred around a Facebook status update by one of Conor's advisers that the Greens were demanding Brian Cowen resign by the end of the week, or they would walk and force an election. This discussion was picked up by Twitterers and enough people were retweeting the link to the discussion that the topic started to trend. By mid-morning however the chatter had died down, or been overwhelmed by the usual dross that occupies most people's online updates - we may not need a data center dedicated to Tweets about Justin Bieber here in Ireland, but our Tweets are certainly the work of no Saints or Scholars (I'm looking at you, fans of Fade Street).

Throughout the day mainstream media coverage of the latest revelations about Cowen's relationship with Seán FitzPatrick and Anglo Irish Bank continued with no mention of this online revelation. While the media were happy to report that the Greens were demanding a statement from An Taoiseach, no-one that I noticed seemed to mention that "a source close to the Fianna Fail party" stated publicly that the Greens were demanding Cowen's resignation.

Now, a pinch of salt has to be taken with this Facebook/Twitter/Politics.ie story, for it is widely assumed that Brian Lenihan wants to be party leader and Taoiseach, and his aunt Mary O'Rourke TD in a Tweet the same morning (one of only thirteen she has ever made) called on Cowen to set a date for the election, so it is not a stretch of the imagination to suggest that yesterday's 'slip' of the online tongue by Conor's advisor was no accident and part of an orchestrated push against Cowen. But surely this in and of itself is newsworthy, that there is a concerted putsch against the Taoiseach from the highest levels of his own Party?

Although a few journalists have embraced social media and the potential of online resources, Gavin Sheridan and (until very recently) Mark Coughlan at The Story being a perfect example of true journalism in a digital age, the majority have yet to understand what a gamechanger it is. While I believe that overall Twitter and its ilk will have a detrimental effect on the substance of social discourse, there is no denying its ability to rapidly propagate simple ideas, it is the perfect meme machine, and if through this the public know more (or think they know more) about a story than the traditional media is willing to cover, and sooner, then what is the value of traditional media?

The answer to this, however, is not for mainstream media to abandon fact checking and embrace rapid-response coverage a la US cable news, or attempt to give equal weighting to viewer opinion as to actual news in a painful attempt to replicate the interactivity of social media as CNN has done, nor to adopt a rhetoric and opinion-based approach to coverage as exemplified by Fox or the Irish/Sunday Independent, the response should in fact be to double-down on the quality and depth of investigative journalism and reportage.

Online and social media is great for Event reporting, with the quick dissemination of reports where the timing and immediacy of an event is of interest almost as much as the event itself. But the online audience is fickle, easily distracted and has a short attention span, and as of yet is largely unwilling to spend the time to read an article of any length or substance. Online media groups know this, and tailor their coverage to short reports with very little follow on, what larger and more substantial articles there are tend to still be versions of print articles from mainstream magazines. Very little in-depth analysis and true investigative journalism is done by exclusively online organisations. Twitter and Facebook do not make the news, or report the news, they exist purely to make money from other people discussing things, the content of those discussions being irrelevant to the hosting companies. Thus these groups should never be allowed to take the place of actual journalism in a society.

The challenge for journalists is that they operate in a commercial environment. While they may have originally been drawn to the profession by a calling, a sense of duty and obligation to their fellow citizens, they are employed by an industry that is driven by revenue, not duty. The readership or audience is driven largely by base desires for titillation or outrage, but rarely seeks to be educated or informed, and thus we get the type of journalism that we secretly crave, light on analysis and heavy on eulogies for overexposed models dead from overdoses.

While online media, because of the immediacy of the environment it operates in, will always graviate towards our baser needs, offline media in comparison has a duty to challenge us, to teach us even when we do not wish to be taught. Thus the future of offline journalism is in Slow News, it is in careful and measured analysis, in-depth coverage and true investigative work. It is a return to the weekly or monthly periodical and the space for considered reflection that this offers. Fast News is the realm of the online world, but it should seek only to report and not speculate or editorialise, for first impressions are almost always reactionary and wrong. These twin paths are the best hope for responsible journalism.

The trouble with the Irish mainstream media is that they don't know where they fit in to this brave new world. By and large they are unwilling to undertake large-scale and time consuming investigations, preferring to regurgitate press releases, report the details of events but not the context and do little to push those in positions of power or authority, being altogether too cosy with those on whom they are supposed to be reporting; The latest revelations about Cowen and Anglo came from an English (well, UK and Newscorp-owned) paper, the Sunday Times, and not an Irish one and, as a smarter person than I said, if you want to know what's going to be in this Saturday's Irish Times just look at last week's Sunday Times. On the other hand the Irish mainstream media have yet to embrace the immediacy of the world in which they now live, that by the time the 6pm news comes on a story is already stale, having been ruminated and regurgitated over and over again through the digestive tracts of Tweeters and Facebookers. If their analysis is not adding anything to the story that the audience does not already know, or has not already considered, what value does it have?

If the goal when reporting is to be the first, or the best, then at the moment the mainstream media in Ireland is neither of those things. And we the citizenry suffer as a result.

Update on 13/01/11: What a difference a day makes, as everyone now seemed happy to report on last night's Tweetstorm concerning a possible push against Cowen. Perhaps the difference is that in this case the originating Tweets came from a journalist from the really real world.

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