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  • Journalistic ethics, Twitter and the reporting of Gerry Ryan’s death

    May 4, 2010 @ 6:21 pm | by Hugh Linehan

    Last Friday afternoon, irishtimes.com had the biggest traffic spike we’ve experienced since our launch in 2008. Hundreds of thousands of people came to the site as news of the sad and untimely death of Gerry Ryan filtered out across the country.

    By the time we published the story, at 3.20pm, it had already been the subject of wide discussion and speculation on social media networks and message boards for more than an hour. The Irish Times had received unofficial confirmation from authoritative sources that the story was true. We had our report written and ready to go. However, we did not publish until we received official confirmation from Gerry Ryan’s employer, RTE. In doing this, we were following the editorial guidelines we follow in relation to reporting the death of any individual, well-known or otherwise, in Ireland: official confirmation on the record from next of kin, employer or the emergency services is required before the name of the deceased person is published.

    Since Friday afternoon, there’s been a heated online debate about the actions of some journalists on the day, including Una Mullally of the Sunday Tribune and Sunday Business Post technology editor Adrian Weckler, both of whom posted the story on Twitter well before it was officially confirmed. Between 2pm and 2.15pm, Weckler tweeted three times: ‘Gerry Ryan…? What?’, then ‘Another source in here claiming Gerry Ryan is dead’, then ‘Spreading like wildfire. Gaining credence. Still unconfirmed, though’. Weckler was cautioned online by broadcaster Matt Cooper and by Frank Fitzgibbon of the Sunday Times (‘Adrian, might be best if you wait until it’s confirmed, do you not think.? I believe he has a family’). RTE broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan responded to Una Mullally’s tweeted query on the subject: ‘Tragically it is true. So terribly shocking and sad. Life is just too cruel sometimes. RIP’

    When contacted by RTE, O’Callaghan deleted her comment, but it had already been widely republished (users can delete their own posts on Twitter, but have no control over them once they’ve been circulated by others). The Sunday Times put ‘Miriam’s tweet’ and the fallout from it on its front page, while Mullally wrote a lengthy article on the whole issue in the Sunday Tribune (strangely omitting her own involvement in the story, although she defends her position on that in her comment on Jim Carroll’s post here).

    All of which might just look like an unseemly bout of media navel-gazing in the aftermath of a personal tragedy for Gerry Ryan’s family, friends and colleagues. But there are serious issues at stake here.

     Journalists have daily access to information sources not available to the general public. With that access comes responsibility. Most media professionals know this and have it hardwired into the way they respond to such information – they discuss how best to proceed with their colleagues and editors. There is a chain of command which ensures things are done correctly and ethically. It doesn’t always work, mistakes can be made and standards may radically differ from one organisation to another, but recognisable decision-making systems are in place.

    On Twitter, there’s no editor to make those calls. And, because of their immediacy and informality, social networks feel different from traditional media platforms, be they newspapers, broadcasters or websites. One minute you’re discussing the football match with your pal, the next you’re passing on the ‘scoop’ that a well-known person has died.

    But for a professional journalist, the same ethical and legal responsibilities attach to publishing something on Facebook or Twitter as to printing it in a newspaper or saying it on a radio programme.

    There’s been a lot of finger-pointing over this issue since Friday. As an editor, I have no particular desire to clamber onto high moral ground, but I do think mistakes were made and we all need to learn some lessons from them. Discussion of ethical issues in the media is often presented as some sort of Manichean battle between principle and profit, with the latter usually winning out. But really, it’s not  like that. Yes, thousands of people came to irishtimes.com on Friday for this particular news, but they also went to other news sites, all of which had the same story up within minutes of each other. Short-term traffic gains made by running the story earlier would have been more than outweighed by the long-term damage created by a perception that we had behaved insensitively and inappropriately. Ethical and commercial considerations are not mutually exclusive. And there’s no particular commercial benefit to be extracted from posting on Twitter, either.

    Newspapers and broadcasters risk devaluing their own reputations if their journalists are permitted to publish scattergun pieces of information they happen to pick up in the office. It’s not a question of censorship, but of editorial judgment and discipline. Maintaining those standards is a real challenge for all of us in journalism and it’s one we’re only really starting to consider properly.

    There’s a lively discussion going on over at On the Record about this. You can read and comment on Una Mullally’s Sunday Tribune article here. And Adrian Weckler’s thoughts on the subject are here. There are a lot of interesting comments on all three pieces.

  • Future shock in Croke Park

    April 27, 2010 @ 10:32 pm | by Hugh Linehan

    I had a really interesting day at the Media 2020 conference in Croke Park. Lots of provocative stuff about how not just media, in the understood sense of the word, is changing, but how everything else is changing too.

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    Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan kicks off Media 2020

    It was a full schedule – 17 speakers in one day – which didn’t offer much opportunity for discursiveness or digressions (not a criticism by the way – the strict timekeeping was very welcome).  For my part, I thought Fiach MacConghail, Ciaran OGaora and Mark Little were particularly good on, respectively, building new audience relationships, maintaining creativity from one generation to another, and thinking about new ways of doing journalism.

    But, in the crowdsourcing spirit often invoked through the day, it would be good to know what other people thought of the day. If you weren’t there, you can get a pretty good sense of proceedings from #med2020 on Twitter.

  • Rules of the game change in UK election

    April 25, 2010 @ 9:35 pm | by Hugh Linehan

    Who’d have thought the UK election campaign would turn out to be so interesting? Sure, there was always a suspicion that the Conservatives hadn’t quite sealed the deal and might fall short, but the Cleggmania phenomenon has completely shifted the centre of gravity. As Shane Hegarty pointed out yesterday, it’s ironic that at a time when every election sees pundits predicting that the electoral process is about to be revolutionised by New Media, it’s the very Old Media construct of a staged TV debate which has changed the game. The instantaneous reaction of thousands of people on Twitter and Facebook may have added a little to that, but only a little.

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    Here in Ireland. we’re so saturated by and familiar with the British way of doing things that we tend to forget how odd their system is. Not just the bonkers outcomes which first-past-the-post can deliver, but the fact that they must be one of the last countries in the Western world to finally accept that a televised debate between political leaders might be a good thing. The irrational exuberance which followed the first of the three leaders’ debates seemed like a release of pent-up energy, out of proportion to anything that had actually happened.

    The shenanigans in the (largely pro-Tory) British press since the Yellow Peril emerged have also been interesting. I look forward to the anecdotes which are sure to emerge from the newsrooms of the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph about what the reaction was when they realised the real enemy wasn’t boring old Gordon, after all. The real threat to their power doesn’t come from anything in the economic programmes of the competing parties, but from the prospect of real electoral reform, and its inevitable corollary, the end of single-party government.

    Former Sun editor David Yelland’s piece in the Guardian last week laid bare the attitude of British newspapers to the Lib Dems (a party which, we should remember, regularly gets one out of evry five votes cast in the UK, far more than the Labour Party gets in Ireland and a multiple of anything the Greens, PDs or Sinn Fein have achieved here):

    ‘They are the invisible party, purposely edged off the paper’s pages and ignored. But it is worse than that, because it is not just the Murdoch press that is guilty of this. The fact is that much of the print press in this country is entirely partisan and always has been. All proprietors and editors are part of the “great game”. The trick is to ally yourself with the winner and win influence or at least the ear of the prime minister.

    The consequence of this has been that the middle party has been ignored, simply because it was assumed it would never win power. After all, why court a powerless party?

    So, as the pendulum swings from red to blue and back to red, the newspapers, or many of them, swing with it – sometimes ahead of the game and sometimes behind.’

    Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch’s biographer Michael Wolf suggests Rupert may be feeling unhappy that he allowed his son and heir James to persuade him that Cameron was the coming man:

    ‘… a reluctant Murdoch—telling everyone who would listen that Cameron was too slick by half—sourly went along.Now, Murdoch likes winners, even more than he likes Conservatives. One of the most famous headlines of his career appeared in the Sun after the Conservative victory in Britain 1992: “It’s The Sun Wot Won It.” Murdoch is still stewing over an ill-timed and inept endorsement of John McCain over Barack Obama (again, against his better judgment—Murdoch likes Obama and was convinced to back McCain by Roger Ailes and New York Post editor Col Allen).’

    Roger Ailes, by the way, is the man responsible for the gift to democracy which is Fox News.

  • So here it is – irishtimes.com’s first iPhone app

    April 12, 2010 @ 2:19 pm | by Hugh Linehan

    The irishtimes.com news app for the iPhone was launched this weekend, and sits atop the Irish bestsellers in the App Store as I write. Interesting reactions, from the ‘handy, easy and quick’ to ‘pointless and disappointing’.

    it_app_home.jpg

    Most of the more negative comments focus on the fact that you don’t get the full content of the newspaper for your 159 cents. However, you do get all breaking Irish, international, business and sport news throughout the day, along with selected content from The Irish Times. For that price (less than, a single issue of the paper, after all), I reckon it’s a pretty good package. I’ve been using the test version over the last couple of weeks, and finding it very useful.

    Remember, this is not the be-all and end-all of our app strategy – expect another announcement very soon – it’s the first stage in a process which I expect will continue in lots of interesting ways over the next while.

    In the meantime, I’d be very interested to hear what users think.

  • Back from Galway, clutching Jim Carroll’s Blog Award..

    March 29, 2010 @ 11:17 pm | by Hugh Linehan

    …for best blog by a journalist. Thanks to Damien and all his elves for putting on such a great show in Galway. And I’m particularly delighted that Jim, who has led the way in blogging on irishtimes.com, has got his just reward after three years. I might even hand over the trophy when he gets back from his American jaunt.

    Back on terra firma, lots of reaction, the majority of it negative, to our replacement of Today’s Paper by the epaper. Have been assimilating it and will come back with a more considered response within the next couple of days. There’s quite a range of interesting points across a wide span of issues, and I’ll try to deal with them all.

    Elsewhere, News Corp’s long-awaited announcement of how its Times and Sunday Times paywall will work has received a lot of attention. It looks pretty crude to me at first sight, but be sure of one thing: newspapers around the world will be scrutinising this project with intense interest for anything useful they might learn. Rupert Murdoch has devised the global media’s biggest lab rat, and a lot of people will be quietly grateful to him for that. Mind you, you know what happens to most lab rats…

  • Yes, we’ll soon be charging for the newspaper online. No, we’re not charging for content

    March 11, 2010 @ 5:41 pm | by Hugh Linehan

    Next Thursday (March 18th) we will replace the Today’s Paper page on irishtimes.com with the epaper, which replicates online the experience of reading The Irish Times newspaper. (more…)

  • I have something I’d like to share with you

    February 25, 2010 @ 6:39 pm | by Hugh Linehan

    We’ve updated our social bookmarking.. and not before time, some of you may feel. We’ve springcleaned and updated our  sharing tools on the top and bottom of articles on irishtimes.com. The new tools have been live since yesterday, and initial tracking seems to indicate people are using them quite a bit…

    …which is nice.

    Any thoughts on other stuff we should be doing to encourage sharing?

  • Since I’ve been gone…

    February 22, 2010 @ 10:44 pm | by Hugh Linehan

    …those pretty bleak newspaper circulation figures were published.

    (more…)

  • A tale of two public service broadcasters

    January 31, 2010 @ 11:57 pm | by Hugh Linehan

    I know it’s not always fair to make comparisons between RTE and the BBC – different scale, etc, etc – but the reaction on Twitter last night to those two public service broadcasters reflected my own feelings. Raspberries were generally blown in the direction of the Irish channel’s rehashed Tubridy Tonight, with a strangely muted Brendan O’Connor (how I longed for some of the sage analysis for which he is famed). The Twitterati are hard to please – who could reasonably argue with a bill of fare including both Twink AND Linda Martin?

    Meanwhile, The Virtual Revolution on BBC2 had interviews with most of the people responsible for inventing the universe which you and I inhabit. OK, this history of the World Wide Web was a little gushy at times, and one might have wished for a bit more breadth and depth to the interviews, but the Beeb has made all the rough footage available online for people to do with as they please. Like this:

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     Increasingly, public service broadcasting on the other side of the Irish Sea means making all the data available online to the public who pay for it. What are the chances of that ever happening at RTE? If it does, I’ll pass on the Twink outtakes, though.

  • News from Denmark, down with paywalls and in Steve we trust…

    January 26, 2010 @ 10:38 pm | by Hugh Linehan

    Just back from f-f-freezing Copenhagen, where I had a very interesting few hours in the offices of Politiken, Denmark’s Guardian-ish left of centre daily. (more…)

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