Don’t tell me what to think! Social media vs heritage news

Don’t tell me what to think! Social media vs heritage news

Heritage media in the UK took another punch to the stomach recently as social media refused to allow The Daily Mail to set a racist right wing agenda. A couple of weeks later, John Hartigan decided to strike a blow on behalf of the heritage newspaper industry to the blogging community in his speech to the National Press Club. In it, he held up establishment journalism as the bastion of truth and the blogging community as inaccurate, unoriginal and shallow. Both The Daily Mail and Hartigan have demonstrated that heritage news insists on being a one way street – “We’re right – you just listen”. Like many traditional businesses, newspapers have shown that they just don’t trust the judgment of their own audience – and a lack of trust is fatal in business.

Telling you what to think

The newspaper opinion poll has been a popular form of newsmaking for decades, and has increased since the real-time benefits of the internet became apparent. There aren’t many newspaper websites that don’t include reader polls designed to create a story out of the results – supposedly tapping into the readership’s psyche and reporting on it. The benefits of this kind of reporting are obvious – the audience identifies with the findings, the newspaper gets an easy story. Many of us in marketing would normally applaud attempts to crowdsource information and include audience opinion at the very heart of content – after all, that is what social media is all about. Yet The Daily Mail’s attempts to push a right wing agenda with such a poll backfired massively once Twitter was on the case.

To briefly recap a story reported on many UK blogs; In June, the British Government announced guidance that would mean GPs would need to see ‘travellers’ (as gypsies are more politely called these days) whenever they attend a clinic without an appointment. This guidance was given to recognise the cultural differences inherent in this ethnic group that could be negatively impacted should travellers be forced into an appointment system. The Department of Health had become concerned that travellers had been experiencing difficulty in accessing primary care, particularly as they move from place to place.

This issue, predictably, drew a strong reaction from the right wing press – notably The Daily Mail which placed a poll on their website, asking the question;

“Should the NHS allow gypsies to jump the queue?”

Phrasing the question this way was clearly designed to provoke a negative response, invoking the passive racism and moral outrage The Mail believes lives inside their readers. The Mail – among other papers – has thrived on whipping up reader anger over immigration, multiculturalism and “loony” left wing policy.

Only a few years ago, such a poll would probably have worked exactly as intended, resulting in a follow-up story detailing the “public outrage at NHS bias – gypsy scroungers more important than you” or something similar.

But now we have Twitter.

The audience strikes back!

The poll hadn’t been live for long before Twitter users started calling for a strong “Yes” vote to the poll. The tweets were retweeted across the web, with more and more adding their voices to the cause.

The result? The poll showed a stunning 96% “Yes” vote before it was suddenly and without explanation pulled from the website – replaced with an out of date old survey.

Certainly this is a great example of Twitter spreading the word, but it also demonstrates something else. Heritage newspapers have enjoyed dictating the agenda for well over a century. By staking a claim over a particular segment of the audience – right wing, left wing, middle class, working class, etc – the newspapers then preach and manipulate that audience to align sentiment and thereby virtually control readership loyalty.

Newspapers have happily had a one-way conversation with their readers, banishing contrary views to the letters page where they can safely be printed to show their openess before quietly forgetting them. Even the polls – which as I mentioned before should be a perfect example of crowdsourcing – are almost always skewed towards a particular result that forwards the newspaper’s agenda.

We have always known newspapers have political bias and particular viewpoints and have accepted this for the most part. But the audience is increasingly wanting to have the right of reply in this conversation, just as we have begun to in other areas of our digital lives. We no longer want to passively receive the biased views of a heritage news media that considers its readership nothing more than numbers on a circulation chart. We want to help inform those opinions, debate them openly and report genuinely on what the community really wants, feels and believes.

Bloggers have opinions too!

Hartigan, in his speech last week, argued that heritage news organisations had a higher authority in reportage that should not be challenged by ‘citizen journalists’.

In return for their free content, we pretty much get what we’ve paid for – something of such limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance.

Citizen journalists … simply don’t have the resources to bring us reliable news. They lack not only expertise and training but access to decision makers and reliable sources.

No one is arguing that professional journalists shouldn’t continue to bring insightful and well-researched and impeccably resourced news content. For opinions to happen, the real facts and news still needs to be reported and newsrooms are still best equipped to do so. But, once the facts are out there, does that negate the opinions of the readers in their own blogs or on Twitter or elsewhere? After all, not all news journalism is fact-finding and sources. Blogging is more akin to editorialising and who is to say that – having followed the same news stories, my – or your – perspective is any less valid than Piers ($%#@&^) Ackerman. Just like anywhere in our society, there are bloggers of all levels of intellectual skill or analytic ability, capable of shaping all kinds of opinions good or bad. If democracy allows us all the same single vote under the belief that everyone’s opinion is valuable and equal, why is a blogger’s opinion less valuable than Miranda ($%#@&^) Divine’s because one appears in print and another in WordPress? (Yes, I’m deliberately picking on the columnists that hang on my mental dartboard).

Twitter users kicked The Daily Mail in the teeth to remind them they can’t take their audience for granted any more. Bloggers continually push back with counter arguments to the self-serving and subtextual agendas of the mainstream press editorials. We now have the power to genuinely crowdsource public opinions and beliefs and debate them in blogs, on forums and social networks. Heritage media can either start listening to our agendas – all of them – and actually engage with us instead of preaching to us, or they can get the hell out of the way.