Commentary

What Constitutes Coverage In The Age Of Social Media?

My dad the newsman tells a story today that portended more than he realized at the time it actually went down. Years ago in a Midwestern town there was rumor of a raucous protest to take place at a local school board meeting. The town paper's editor (who may or may not have been my dad) sent his reporter to cover the flap. When the reporter arrived on the scene, all was quiet, but he noticed people sitting around in their cars. So he knocked on a window and asked, "Is there going to be a protest here today?" The answer: "Not until the TV cameras show up."

When the reporter called his editor and described this scenario, he was told bluntly to return to the office. The editor refused to cover the stunt in the paper. Back then, this preemptive block had an impact, and news coverage of the protest was instantly watered down.

It is interesting to consider the implied journalistic ethical question: If a news event is contrived, should the media cover it? But guess what? In the age of social media and citizen journalism, for many events, especially on a local stage, this question really doesn't matter. The community takes care of it -- for better or for worse.

Think about the Town Hall Meetings on the Obama administration's proposals for healthcare policy reform, now taking place nationwide. Amid suspicions that the protests raging coast to coast at these meetings are orchestrated by conservative interest groups, event organizers are well aware that every meeting is a You Tube campaign busting at the seams, ready to rip. Whether sanctioned news organizations cover the episodes or not, no matter the level of truth to the staging -- the story can and will propagate within social media.

This reality can be leveraged with fear as its currency. Whether we believe the level of cahoots and bullying or not -- the power shift of those making coverage happen is fascinating. An official position on whether news organizations should cover these events is almost moot. Airtime will happen at the hand of citizens.

My mind goes to other illustrations of these shifting tides:

  • Think about the trembling restaurateur who has come to regard every diner as an amateur food critic. In fact, every amateur food critic is only one scathing post away from blogging a restaurant into oblivion.

  • Customer service issues are no longer under the sole watchful eye of Consumer Reports, or other standard reviewing entities. With a few well-placed tweets, dissatisfied consumers, with their legions of followers, can unleash groundswells of change.

  • Live events and political coverage have taken on new dimensions, with Twitter and the new acceptability of blogging live during events. With computers open and hand-helds ablaze, the coverage flows real-time. Gone are the days of stringers racing to payphones during breaks in the action, filing stories that will appear in the next day's newspapers.

  • Consider those abrasive but popular politicians who, even if not a single news organization ever quotes them again, can create bizarre and broken narratives through the channels of social media democratically available to all of us. A reasonable base of followers and a few keystrokes are all that it takes.

  • Watch the burgeoning practice of reputation management in search engine marketing -- used both to quickly plant the seeds of slander and erase the traces of the same, sometimes within hours. Celebrities are well served by having this know-how on staff, and it's hardly a learned profession. It's just knowing one's way around keyword behavior and optimization. This crafty version of damage control works hand in hand with social media and buzz campaigning.

    Some of these trends are important and liberating. Some of them are disturbing and kind of sad. But one thing is certain: The gateway to coverage is no longer the exclusive watch of sanctioned news organizations. While philosophic statements can be made on the validity of a news event by seeing whether or not a news organization opts to cover it -- increasingly, such stand-offs are only symbolic. If the social sphere wants something covered, it will be covered.

    This phenomenon says nothing of quality, accuracy and value standards. We can debate whether citizen journalism coverage is more or less potent than that of the big dogs -- but there's no doubt that coverage itself has been totally redefined in this age of social media.

  • 8 comments about "What Constitutes Coverage In The Age Of Social Media? ".
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    1. Steve Baldwin from Didit, August 10, 2009 at 11:06 a.m.

      Insightful article; thanks for writing it.

      What's clearly happening is that "social media" is becoming a term that's been broadened to an extent rendering it practically meaningless. Everything on the Web that isn't a formally sanctioned news source is now part of it: the blogosphere, e-mail, twitter, SMS, Facebook etc.

      As you correctly point out, this latter realms suffers from extreme levels of contamination. Subjectivity is its main value and its main organizing form is that of the rapid-moving mob. There is no question in my mind that once the novelty of this chaotic media mess fades away, we'll be back in the world we inhabitated back in the 20th Century, where the powerful have 50KW broadcasting stations, and the powerless have CB radios, shortwave towers, and mimeograph machines.

    2. Richard Monihan, August 10, 2009 at 11:13 a.m.

      To a large degree, everything is orchestrated these days. While it's easy to put down those who are shouting down speakers at Town Hall meetings, one forgets that only 4 years ago the same thing was happening with Social Security - but with the yelling coming from the other side of the aisle.

      I am more inclined to read a friend's review of a restaurant on Facebook (or his views on Sports, or TV, or Politics) and accept them for what they are - opinion from a valued source. I am less inclined to read a paper and accept the same from a self-appointed "expert" pundit. Why? Because I don't know them, I don't know their agenda, I don't know much beyond what they've written.

      It's very hard to simply slough off new social media commentary as inaccurate or amateurish. It's from the heart, and it's got credibility because we usually know the source. As a result, a restaurant owner who recognizes a food critic and serves him the best meal and gets 4 stars suddenly has to realize everyone in his restaurant is a critic - and has to provide the very best service to each one, as opposed to only one.
      And politicians have to start taking their opposition seriously, rather than simply calling them dim-witted or out of touch. More likely, they are very much in touch and have as much an agenda as the politician (who, by their very nature as public servants are NOT supposed to have an agenda).
      Athletes have to be concerned about their image to a far greater degree. Walking past fans while in a huff, or with an abrasive edge and snappy comment will undoubtedly wind up on Facebook or Twitter. This is not how they are going to want their fans to know them. Better to take the extra moment to be caring, sign the extra autograph and then politely excuse oneself.

      I see new social media as liberating, in a sense. It should keep us all on our toes.

    3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 10, 2009 at 11:41 a.m.

      "The revolution will be televised."

    4. Graeme Thickins from GT&A Strategic Marketing inc, August 10, 2009 at 12:49 p.m.

      Tremendous post, Kendall. And an excellent comment from Richard Monihan. A very worthy topic, nicely explored.

      cheers,
      Graeme
      www.twitter.com/graemethickins

    5. Mark Leevan from TrendyExaminer.com, August 10, 2009 at 2:01 p.m.

      So the editor decided that if TV there, he would boycott the event? Where did that leave the readers?

      He manipulated the coverage more than TV did.

      The "community" didn't cover it. They changed their ways so MSM would continue to show up.

      The "community" reaches only themselves or people that think like them. To have real impact requires a very large soapbox.

      A soapbox that will reach those outside of like-minded thinkers.

      No large soapbox has emerged without the heavy lifting being done by MSM.

    6. Karen Walter, August 11, 2009 at 2:29 a.m.

      Nice article I am very pleased with the thoughts that are expressed in the article and did not like to add anything to it.
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    7. David Hertz from Dix & Eaton, August 12, 2009 at 4:46 p.m.

      Nice article. Seems as if you are referring to the "viral whisper" that Dan Pfeiffer of the White House mentioned recently to the Washington Post. Of course, sometimes, the volume in social media is not a whisper, it's a roar.

      A question I raise in a recent blog post ( http://blogs.dix-eaton.com/index.php/mediainnerview/ )is what creates this whisper, or roar? And must PR professionals respond to them all?

    8. Albert Maruggi from Give It A Think, August 13, 2009 at 3:53 p.m.

      With all this access to opinions, with the information posted open to all, perhaps we will come to the conclusion that it's better to leave everything unsaid.

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