Somebody somewhere probably thought it was a fun idea for a prank, or perhaps a test of some kind — how far will it go? So they threw the stone into the water — a note on Twitter saying Nelson Mandela had died — and watched as the circles spread.
A claim of that kind is guaranteed to spread like wildfire, and so it did, until journalists checked with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and were told firmly that he was on holiday and quite well, thank you.
The incident, in January this year, wasn’t the first time the 92-year-old icon had been the subject of rumours about his health and it is unlikely to be the last. It demonstrated one way in which social media such as Facebook and Twitter have changed the world of journalism — and introduced some new ethical challenges. Canadian commentator Ira Basen calls it “News 2.0”.
There have been many other instances. It is now possible to follow every twist and turn of major court cases by following a reporter’s tweets, faster even than the radio station that the reporter works for. Outside a fast-food outlet in Birnam an alleged hijacker is gunned down: the news first emerges on Twitter and traditional media are left playing catch-up.
The central role of social media in political developments in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere has been much discussed. The governments were able to close down traditional reporting but could not silence the online community. Major news organisations relied heavily on “citizen journalists” to keep their audiences informed.
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter provide journalists with a rich new source and tool for reporting. (Of course, there’s a lot of rubbish out there.)
The Mail & Guardian recently held an editorial workshop to discuss ways to use social media better. The old-timers in the group were aghast at the suggestion they should be paying attention to the domestic and other trivia, fringe views, shallow prejudice and other nonsense that dominates the Twittersphere. We don’t have time for this, they said.
But it’s much like the corner pub of old, where sharp reporters picked up many interesting ideas and stories. Of course, very few drunks propping up the bar have a life story or tip that is as fascinating or significant as they think. Trawling through a mass of uninteresting information to find material of value has always been part of a journalist’s job.
The other thing a journalist brings to the table is verification. A tweet only becomes a story once it has been checked.
The comfortably clear lines between the professional journalist and everyone else have undoubtedly been blurred by the rise of the citizen reporter, but I think we will continue to need journalists in some form. They are, essentially, people who are paid to sift the growing volume of available information, check it and then publish it with a kind of stamp of validity.
The more difficult ethical challenge for journalists is to work out how they as individuals participate in the great conversation that continues all the time on social media and other digital platforms.
Media organisations increasingly use the social media space to build their brands: Facebook sites create communities of readers; Twitter is used to draw attention to important reports. At the M&G, the editor and others are very active, and the paper is encouraging other staffers to get involved.
What needs thought is how to deal with the blurring of lines between the personal and the professional. Social media are overwhelmingly informal — the conversation feels like one between friends. It’s easy to forget how very public it is.
Journalists’ professionalism may be judged by what they say online. Comments are hardly ever really private and they enter a permanent digital record that is almost impossible to erase. As somebody once said, Facebook is the place where young people do things that make them unemployable later.
It is probably not advisable, for instance, for political reporters to fill in their political allegiance in the relevant space on their Facebook page, a point made in several of the policies on social media now being developed by American media groups.
A reasonable rule of thumb is probably that it’s fine to say something on social media if one would be comfortable saying it in print.
There are other complexities. It is easy, for instance, to retweet a story that seems interesting. But if you do it as a journalist, are you attesting to its truth? Clearly, that would be problematic in a case like the Mandela rumour.
The online conversation is permanently incomplete and offers opportunities, for instance, to discuss the reporting process as it unfolds. The Wall Street Journal was criticised for online rules that said journalists should never “detail how an article was reported, written or edited”. But this misses an opportunity to increase transparency. Undertaken with some care, it can build relationships with audiences.
The M&G is developing a set of guidelines on these and other issues, and you can expect them to encourage the use of social media.
The paper will aim to keep an eye on traditional values that safeguard the credibility of the paper, while enabling its staff to participate fully and productively in this new conversational space.
The Mail & Guardian‘s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact me at [email protected] You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message