OK, I’ve got a bone to pick with my own industry. It may sound trivial, and maybe there are lots of people who think it’s all right. I don’t — this, by the way, is my own personal opinion, and only my personal opinion.
But here goes: more and more, especially in breaking news stories, I’m seeing stories that are literally a list of compiled tweets or other mentions on social media. It’s more prevalent in the United States than in Canada right now, but I see them here, too.
Essentially, instead of getting feet on the ground (and I understand there are far fewer feet in newsrooms these days), newsrooms troll social media, copy and paste together a collection of “eyewitness” tweets, and call it a story.
Often, all it turns out to be is a collection of mentions that are trending on Twitter anyway.
But it’s not a story, and it’s not journalism.
Like journalists or hate them, think that they are all part of a massive international conspiracy or not, you have an expectation that they are at least taking steps to establish what they’re quoting is from a real human. This past weekend, an on-air reporter on a national network in Canada actually read tweets from a series of bots — automated fake profiles — as an incident unfolded.
But even if the tweets are from real people, if you’re in a newsroom at your computer collecting snippets, you really are getting only one side of a story. You don’t know if someone claiming to be a witness to an event is even there, and you don’t know if their images or video are from that event. You’re not actively looking for people to tell you what happened, you’re absorbing a version.
Every time we breathlessly jump into a story or jump to a conclusion and get it wrong, we’re giving readers and viewers one more reason to discount the rest of the work we do, no matter how often we get it right.
Tweets aren’t always on-the-scene quotes from people who have witnessed something. Often, they can be someone trying to get their 15 seconds of fame.
And I know that news organizations like to be the first ones to break news — it generates clicks, and those clicks at least make a trickle of advertising money to support newsrooms.
But instead of chasing clicks, I think newsrooms have to do more. We might have to be slower, but we have to be more thorough. Every time we breathlessly jump into a story or jump to a conclusion and get it wrong, we’re giving readers and viewers one more reason to discount the rest of the work we do, no matter how often we get it right.
Any business has only so much credibility to exhaust. Business owners often talk about the value in their business of something called “goodwill” — it’s the intangible part of their business that makes it worth more than the mere sum of its physical plant and inventory. It’s the reputation for services, or for the quality of your products, that keeps people buying.
I think there has to be a place for something like the slow food movement, but instead of food, slow news. Slow enough, at least, to make sure our business maintains the goodwill of delivering the product it is supposed to; news, analysis and commentary that’s based on demonstrable, well-researched facts.
Literally anyone can string together a row of tweets and slap them up on a website. I’m sure there’s already a totally automatic algorithm doing exactly that on “news” sites that may be operating with no journalists at all.
But all that means is that whoever has enough money to launch a social media bot force can mislead an entire nation, creating a fake “groundswell” for almost anything.
We can do better than that.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.