Can online reaction sway the truth?

Can online reaction sway the truth?

The woman who posted poor taste comments about being Caucasian and immune to AIDs got it horribly wrong on social media.

Sure, her comment was ill-informed – moronic, even. But the consequences far outweighed the crime, which essentially was to grossly misread public sentiment, and indeed the way her comment would be interpreted by the preying masses.

The poor bloke who fell asleep at a baseball game in the United States was equally crucified. As fate would have it, his lapse in the stands was – albeit inadvertent – a poor read on public sentiment. Who knew he’d be so harshly judged for choosing to nap in public?

Hundreds have been harshly judged, rightly or wrongly, by social media. Day in, day out, we too as journalists are judged. What we write, how we present it, which visuals we use – our readers and their friends are our jury.

“Day in, day out, we too as journalists are judged. What we write, how we present it, which visuals we use – our readers and their friends are our jury.

There is an argument which suggests nothing has changed. People judged newspapers for hundreds of years. They wrote letters to the editor to complain about factual errors, story choice, and matters of taste. They stood around the water cooler, along the bar, or at the dinner table to assess the news and how it had been played out.

But plenty has changed. The speed in which a groundswell of opinion can be generated has changed. An issue which would have previously blown over as yesterday’s error can be in the face of an editor or reporter within minutes.

Recently, my own news organisation presented a story about a teacher who had committed suicide. It was found the potential reason was because he had been accused on the internet of an alleged history – 30 years ago as a young man – of paedophilia.

The teacher was much-loved by those he taught, who had only heard publicly of his death minutes before we chose to publish. The facts of the story weren’t wrong, but the tone of the article was ill-timed. We had misread public sentiment, and about 700 comments in 40 minutes told us so, in no uncertain terms.

Some years ago, stuff.co.nz told New Zealand its yachting team had choked by blowing a massive lead in the America’s Cup.

“I, driving to work, made a decision that yes we had choked. The rest of the country was grieving the loss and … to be fair, I probably got the tone wrong,” then-editor Mark Stevens recalls.

“We had the American crew fists in the air, fists pumping, celebrating, and we had the headline across the top ‘Choke on this New Zealand’. We had choked, but the audience didn’t want to see that from us.

“Do I regret it? Probably not. Did they forgive us? Absolutely. Maybe the reason they forgave us was because of that partnership between us and the reader, where they were very quickly able to give me a message that I got it wrong.”

Again, the error was not the content. Rather, it was the tone. It was a misunderstanding of public sentiment.

Each day, story judgements are made with public sentiment in mind. While it doesn’t usually dictate a decision, it can most certainly direct the tone of a news article – whether that be a conscious decision, or one guided by gut feel.

“The question is whether editors are softening their stance in fear of the rapid public backlash which social media can provide.”

The question is whether editors are softening their stance in fear of the rapid public backlash which social media can provide. I personally would like to think not. But the potential is certainly there.

At public forums, a common question arises: “Is the internet dumbing down the quality of journalism?”

They are, of course, referring to what they perceive to be an increasing number of stories about the Kardashians and others which demand high traffic numbers.

“The media,” they say, tarring all with the same brush. Harsh reality says that people should be looking as much, generically, at “the public” as they should be judging “the media”. Story selection is easily scrutinised, but far more subtle are the choices which are being made with potential public sentiment in mind.

An editor once said: “Never campaign on an issue unless you know you have 80 per cent support.” It was never possible to gauge absolute numbers, but those who were clearly on the ground in their community, understanding of their audience, would get it right more often than not.

These fundamentals remain the same, and clearly dictate that the principles of fair and balanced journalism should remain the core focus of newsrooms. Outside influencers, not least the capability for reactionary sentiment to groundswell out of control, are changing.

The responsible thing is for news organisations to react to the demands of their audience without compromising their role to tell the truth as they know it.

Traditionalists on the newsroom floor who believe journalists should be given free reign might beg to differ. But done properly, a reactive approach to public sentiment equates to public governance of the media – and a consequent rise in standards off the back of high-end scrutiny.

SIMON HOLT is managing director of The Brisbane Times.

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