Perceptions by Gerry Warner
Just back from the UBCM convention Friday and all I can say is I despair for the future of print on paper journalism if the UBCM’s panel on “Social Media and Local Government Leadership” is any indication.
By “print on paper journalism” I mean just that – newspapers, magazines and books as opposed to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Pinterist whatever that is.
The panel was made up of several of the stars of what I like to call “The Big City Media” in Vancouver as well as elected local government officials and it wasn’t long before the aforementioned started falling all over themselves showing how hip they were to using social media, sometimes called “New Journalism” or “Citizen Journalism” as opposed to the olden days four or five years ago of stogy old print on paper journalism often referred to “Legacy Media.”
And what do you think much of the discussion was about? How often they “tweeted” or “posted,” how many “likes” they got for certain stories and who had the most “followers.” I kid you not. One local government official sitting beside me was so disgusted by the discussion he called aloud “crap” and walked out. And frankly, I don’t blame him.
But as I sat there listening to the gibberish, I got to thinking. It’s an Internet World now whether we like it or not and Google, Facebook and Twitter are the new media gods as much as that may offend the sensibilities of some of us old Luddites. So as the Victorians said to nervous young brides prior to sex: “Lie on your back and think of England,” I’m trying to accept this so-called “new journalism,” but I’m not quite there yet. Let me tell you why.
Consider the huge scandal that erupted this week over the most read newspaper columnist in Canada, Margaret Wente of the Toronto Globe and Mail. Wente and the Globe have been in damage control all week over a column that Wente wrote almost three years ago that strongly appears to have borrowed some wording – word for word, in fact – from an earlier piece in the Ottawa citizen. In a news story Tuesday, the Globe said it had taken “disciplinary actions” against Wente but didn’t say what they were. Wente herself, in a mea culpa column said something about not checking her notes which sounded weak and unconvincing. The column prompted 1,800 comments on-line – a record – and most of them were negative.
So what’s going on here and what does it have to do with social media? Well, as a columnist myself, having written hundreds, probably more than a thousand, in 30 years of journalism, I think I can make an educated guess. Thanks to the Internet, it’s so easy for social media “journalists” to fall in the clutches of Google, Wikipedia and the like and ATRIBUTION, the Golden Rule of journalism, has gone out the window. The Net, in fact, makes finding “information” so easy that many of today’s “new journalists” conveniently overlook the quality of “information” they’ve received. This leads to shoddy and superficial journalism, or in the case of ideas and opinion, an irresistible temptation to pass off other ideas and opinions as their own. Under deadline pressure, they may even believe it’s their own, but this still doesn’t excuse it.
I’d like to think this is what happened in the Wente case because I’ve greatly enjoyed her columns over the years and had a lot of respect for her. Now I don’t know whether my respect was deserved.
Social media, with the power of the Internet behind it, is indeed a powerful force. But often that power is a mile wide and an inch deep. It can be very superficial and with all the substance of a soap bubble. And so when I hear a bunch of seasoned media professionals and politicians on stage going ga ga about their tweets and followers, I really have to wonder. As George Bernard Shaw once said: “there’s less to this than meets the eye.”
Would Woodward and Bernstein have brought down a president by relying on Facebook postings and tweets? I doubt it because “Deep Throat,” their main source, was a flesh and blood person they interviewed face-to-face and not a random piece of information they found floating in cyberspace.
They call it the “New Journalism.” If that’s the case, I’d rather stick with the old.
Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and a Cranbrook City councilor. His views are his own.