New media circus - Issue 36 - Magazine | Monocle

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On 4 July Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Fadlallah died in Beirut. Fadlallah was a fierce critic of the US and Israel, both of whom considered him a terrorist for links with Hezbollah, which he and the organisation denied. But many western commentators considered Fadlallah a relative moderate; his views on women and Islam – and women in Islam – were, for a Shia cleric, progressive. While his people took to the streets to mourn, Lebanese politicians and religious leaders of differing stripes offered tributes and official condolences covered (almost) every territory in the Middle East and the Arab world.

The British ambassador to Lebanon, Frances Guy wrote, “If I was sad to hear the news I know other people’s lives will be truly blighted” on her blog, while CNN’s senior editor of Middle East affairs ­Octavia Nasr posted, “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect” on Twitter. The Foreign Office asked Guy to retract her statement and Nasr was sacked 48 hours later. So much for independence day.

There was the tweet, the dismissal and then the media-biz chatter over the matter. And while the question of whether or not Nasr should ultimately have had to hand in her CNN lanyard is as fascinating as it is fraught, it is the fallout of Nasr and CNN’s falling-out that might point the way toward the future, toward getting social media to work in the traditional framework of broadcast news. How do you retain the qualities of balance, impartiality and interrogating the facts? After all, when the news becomes the news something’s gone wrong.

The medium and the message are worth a look, for a start. If you’re a senior correspondent for a worldwide news network, why are you tweeting in the first place? When you’re filing sober and impartial reports from the front lines every day, why pick up your mobile or laptop and add to the off-air, online cacophony? Mostly, because it’s part of the deal. Many of the best-known news anchors, field reporters and on-screen editors on the top-ranking international news ­bulletins have Twitter accounts and are encouraged to keep the ball rolling by flagging up recently wrapped interviews and a little of the interesting minutiae of their professional lives. Done well, it’s an aid to understanding and a way of genuinely feeling closer to the news. Done badly, it’s drivel, done worse it can get you sacked. The challenge for journalists and their editors is the blurring of the line between the personal, the professional and the public in a news environment that is changing from being a monologue – the “Voice of God” as it’s known in news circles – and a dialogue, between the broadcaster and the viewer. It’s a conversation, now. A nice chat.

On a visit to the UK’s Channel 4 News, mostly renowned for an analytical outlook, a young, university-educated, plugged-in audience and Jon Snow – its silver fox of enlightened inquisition – deputy editor Martin Fewell explained his bulletin’s attitude to social media. “We encourage our journalists to use Twitter in particular because we think it’s a new way to engage with the audience, hear what they have to say, get content to people. At the end of the day, we’re a content business.” The Channel 4 News team are adept at using social media to tease the evening bulletin, link to further reading and encapsulate the informed yet somehow informal atmosphere of Channel 4 News across multiple platforms. “It’s a source of news, it builds a community around our content,” says Fewell.

While social media seems to work well for Fewell’s team of 120 journalists, at the BBC it’s a different story. Francesca Unsworth, head of newsgathering, is one of the key stops that tens of thousands of journalist-shaped bucks will encounter if they veer too far from the Charter, the BBC’s guarantee of impartiality, independence and licence-fee funding. “We’ve put quite a bit of thought into this, we’ve drawn up social media guidelines,” says Unsworth. “It was Twitter that forced us to formalise something.”

So how do you graft social media rules onto the traditional principle of impartiality? “We say that anyone tweeting on behalf of the BBC has to adhere to the same principles as they would have to if they were putting it on air, and that means it has to have a second pair of eyes,” says Unsworth. ­Incredibly, the BBC has only “a handful” of officially sanctioned tweeters and these outgoing feeds are checked before they hit their followers’ inboxes. It seems that while the BBC knows that news is ­becoming a dialogue rather than a monologue, it’s happier with the latter. With all of its compliance issues, tens of thousands of staff and checks and balances, it would be a relief to simply provide well-read, well-reported bulletins on the hour every hour.

“It was much easier when there was only one bulletin a day!” says Unsworth with a chuckle. And it’s easy to feel her pain. Once journalists answered to their audience through editorial control, now they answer to both, twice.

The BBC’s requirement to serve not just a demographic but an entire nation of licence-fee payers, not to mention the world, means that its ­adherence to taste and decency standards is taken without a single grain of salt. Bias or detectable traces of emotion in news journalism could easily become big stories in their own right. Two of its top reporters Kate Adie and Barbara Plett have been disciplined for betraying emotion in their journalism; others, including kingpin foreign editor John Simpson and Today radio anchor John Humphrys, have been accused by commentators of becoming the story rather than just delivering it.

But there are mistakes and there are mistakes. There are those that fall foul of the medium and there are those whose downfall is all about the message. Nasr’s tweet belied her 25 years’ experience, her expertise in Middle East affairs and her role as “a leader in integrating social media with newsgathering and reporting” as the CNN website had it, until they pulled her page. Expounding a view on a complex issue and a controversial individual in 140 characters is a test of fact-packed brevity that need not be taken.

All of my interviewees suggested Nasr used Twitter simply to link to her blog-piece on Fadlallah. As Chris Brauer, lecturer at London’s Goldsmiths College says, “It took her 140 characters to write that and then 4,400 characters to explain it – there’s clearly a problem with nuance.” The feeling remains that Nasr could have held almost any view other than the one she had. Despite CNN ­responding that the tweet fell foul of (unpublished and unpublicised) editorial policy, it was not having an opinion that was the problem, it was the opinion itself.

US and UK news are very different in terms of the importance to their viewers of certain political hotspots and there are rarely any spots hotter than the Middle East, at least in the news diet we are fed. That is to say, it’s professionally unwise, even if you are Middle East expert, to say that anyone connected with Hezbollah might be worth a second look, morally speaking, because it will be interpreted or misinterpreted as being anti-American, anti-Israeli and, if you hit the jackpot of blinkered political solipsism, anti-Semitic.

No wonder emotions run high, then; it shouldn’t be an emotional issue for the networks, but it always is. Tim McNulty, veteran journalist of White House, Middle East and foreign news desks and now a lecturer at the Medill School at Chicago’s Northwestern University has seen it all before. “I think that CNN and all other media companies are forcing journalists to walk a very tight line between being fair and standing back and wanting them to use social media to have their own voice,” he says. “This isn’t so new in terms of the tensions – producers always wanted my foreign correspondents to appear on TV and radio and wanted them to be provocative and to show emotion about things.” Despite believing that you can be a good journalist with an individual voice, McNulty always sent his charges out with the same message he gives to his students today, “Tell them what you know rather than what you feel.” McNulty’s last words on the matter are those of caution for any wannabe action hero journos, though. “You see Anderson Cooper going to Haiti, emoting with that child? That’s showmanship, that’s not journalism.”

Experience is usually cited as being essential to reporting intelligently, if not intimately. But it’s the subtlety with which that experience is broadcast that counts. And a tweet won’t do. “Her [Nasr’s] tactical error was using an inappropriate format,” says Brauer, “whether she’d have been fired for having any viewpoint is the big question around it.”

Did CNN react in a CNN way? Five years ago CNN’s Eason Jordan “resigned” after Forumblog picked up the chief news ­executive’s alleged remark that journalists had been targeted by US troops in Iraq. Whether the network found this unpalatable on principle or whether it bent to ­external critical pressure never made the news, of course. What’s transparent is a lack of transparency.

“It seems like the Middle East is such a key issue in US political life but you can see the same story being played across Fox, MSNBC and CNN and being treated differently by each one.” How can this happen when each broadcaster makes a song and dance about their impartiality and transparency? When, in five minutes, you can see the political and economic bias of any broadcaster, it’s absurd.

So are we still in an era in which viewers want their views rehashed by a man in a suit on TV? “The era of the experts imparting knowledge to the masses through the nightly news bulletin or through a newspaper has gone,” says Brauer. “It’s not just the physical forms of those things, it’s the paradigms – everyone has to get in on the conversation, and mainstream media is trying to enter the conversation in the same old paradigm – ‘we’re the experts.’” But there wasn’t much expertise in the treatment of a journalist who CNN held up as a beacon of Middle East experience and new media know-how – as Brauer has it, “One of the few things left that sets traditional media apart from social media is the impartiality, the policy and the standards, so if you start acting like as soon as the wind changes so if your policy changes when the wind changes, it won’t be long until your ­audience stops trusting you.”

The dialogue-not-the-monologue is what networks think audiences want. It might be truer to say that audiences now expect conversation rather than really want it. But it’s a further nail in the coffin of major news networks if they want to be part of the conversation but won’t enter into it in an authentic way, pulling back their journalists from engaging with critics, not allowing the swirling world of social media to moderate itself, imposing a sliding scale of limits on involvement, not really trusting the people to which they give “editor” status. Journalists themselves, while being stretched to fill news-shaped holes across multiple platforms, have been quick to adapt to new modes of getting the message across, but their outlets have been slow to find the balance they purport to support. Twitter, while a phenomenal force for gauging the temperature of a story and interacting with an audience (not the, there are a few and they’re slightly different, depending upon how and on what they watch) is also capable of being the drink-and-dial device of contemporary journalism. And the dogs that can’t be taught new tricks?

They’re the giant networks kneeling to hear the news from their troublesome little cousins. And in the Octavia Nasr case, a little forgiveness for a misfired tweet might be in order, instead of a manifest over-reaction. Tim McNulty is pretty plain: “Frankly, if every journalist who made a mistake was fired we’d all just be chatting on the sidewalk.”

Martin Fewell 

Deputy editor, Channel 4 News

“We ask our journalists to make judgements on what they see but we don’t ask them to offer something completely personal. We are required by law to be duly impartial and actually people don’t normally bring their own feelings to an editorial meeting; that’s not to say they won’t say more than they do on the telly, that’s natural, but there’s a pretty clear understanding of where the boundary has to be. Only seven years ago we [Channel 4 News] had one TV show and a small website and I could see everything that went out before it went out, but now I can’t. It’s just not possible to have that level of control. But you don’t just throw your hands up in the air; you work with your team to make sure they know.”

Jon Snow 

Principal newscaster, Channel 4 News

“The reporter’s job is to provide the ears and eyes for citizens denied the chance to witness events for themselves – opinion gets in the way of narrative. On the other hand, the reporter is no neutral observer – he is a man or she is a woman and even that structural difference impacts upon the selection of information he or she chooses to transmit. Opinion is different from emotion.

Collectively social media has democratised the process of news gathering and news transmission.

No longer is ‘feed back’ restricted to the occasional call to the switchboard or a letter of complaint in green ink underlined in red. In the multi-platform age we are bombarded with stories, leaks and leads to follow.

At the same time we receive a great range of responses, from praise and complaint to tips and fresh ideas.

Blogging and other social media does give you a freedom not possible onscreen, but the fact is that if you are a television news reporter or presenting you can’t blog in a truly personal capacity – because you’re not the sole guardian of your public persona.”

Francesca Unsworth

Head of newsgathering, BBC News

“Social media makes things more difficult to police. People inadvertently might say something that they don’t think has anything to do with their role at the BBC and inadvertently finds that it does and that’s the news world we now inhabit: it’s more open, it’s more out there, there’s more of it.

During the Raoul Moat [a gunman on the run in the UK] case the police requested two news blackouts because they felt that life was going to be threatened if information was put into the public domain. We, the traditional media, respected this, but within minutes the blackout request was circulating all over the blogosphere.

It’s an example of whatever we decide to do – respecting embargoes, requests for news blackouts for quite good reasons – you can’t do anything because it will get out into the blogosphere. It’s a challenge for organisations and for journalists as to how they deal with that – and if you don’t report on something circulating in the blogosphere then it can lose you trust – that becomes a problem for traditional media.”

Tim McNulty

Former newsman, lecturer at Northwestern’s Medill School

“Twitter’s good for breaking news but as we’ve seen, there’s no space for adjectives or qualification. I think it’s enormously helpful at getting word out. Eventually people will find a finite number of tweets and blogs that they trust rather than this random selection of tens of thousands of different things. I always tell my students that their future will be nothing like my past – they’ll have to negotiate and navigate through all sorts. CNN’s action has a very chilling effect on journalists – we discussed this in my class and it’s not lost on students that what you say could get you fired.”

Chris Brauer

Senior lecturer and director, media & innovation in computing at Goldsmiths, University of London

“Journalism needs to get over itself and lead by example in this area – formal, informal, social networks. All these organs are encouraging their journalists to have more informal relationships with their viewers but then as soon as you make a tactical error in this regard you’re judged to have breached editorial standards – these standards aren’t transparent or easily available or just not sophisticated enough. So a journalist with 20 years experience, talks about a notorious moderate in the region, expresses a viewpoint that is later shared by all sorts of highly public figures and is fired. I don’t think she was fired for having a viewpoint, she was hired for having a particular viewpoint.”

Monocle view

Somethings’s got to give. Experienced anchors, editors and correspondents with decades of experience from the front line shouldn’t be made to play the same game as early-adopter tech buffs, the PR crowd and kids; a little distance can be a good thing. While social media can be useful as a news input when streamlined and refined, these channels are currently doing the networks more harm than good. Broadcasters should focus on their job: serving their still abundant audiences with breaking news and intelligent analysis rather than following fashion.

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