A wake-up call to the media: Twitter is not your sitting room
IT WON’T BE framed as a noble gesture, and will certainly not be seen as such by Seán Gallagher, but when someone fed Pat Kenny the now infamous tweet during the Frontlinepresidential debate last year they did the rest of journalism a big favour. During a pivotal, dramatic televised session in front of a huge audience, it reminded us of this: Twitter is not your sitting room.
It was inevitable that social media would at some time prove something of a honey trap for a journalist or media organisation. On that night in October the drama of the television debate, mixed with the extreme weather being described by flood victims across the country, produced a night of high drama.
If you adore Twitter, as a great many journalists do, it was a compelling time to sit in front of the television, with the waters rising outside the house and your Twitter stream boiling.
It is possible that that the Frontlinecrew allowed themselves to get carried away by the torrent that was Twitter during those hours. The result was the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s findings, as delivered in its judgment on Wednesday, and Gallagher’s belief that the desire to dramatise the event overrode journalistic standards. If so, it was an understandable, if faulty, impulse. It was, in fact, a common one. Among the notable aspects of The Frontline’s error is that the programme wasn’t alone in making it. Hundreds of others retweeted the same “revelation”. Several of them were journalists.
It is an increasing issue, talked about at great length in media organisations, with guidelines drawn up by some. Because people have slipped before, often when they had become blind to the lines between their professional duties and their private tweets. Miriam O’Callaghan’s early announcement of Gerry Ryan’s death remains the most famous example in Ireland, but there are growing numbers of examples elsewhere.
The informal, almost intimate nature of a platform shared with millions lulls users into believing it is a closed space when it is not. Its immediacy can rob users of caution. You don’t have to confine your view to teen tweeters to see just how little appreciated this is, although younger users appear to have notions of privacy that are particularly loose. How they mature in this environment could in time have repercussions for public discourse.
Moving a little farther from The Frontline, the potential of Twitter – or, more accurately, its users – to spread misinformation raises complex questions about how you apologise or retract. On Twitter, retweets quickly lose their provenance. The original tweeter can be quickly left behind, like the originator of a joke or an urban myth.
Attempts to claim it back can be futile. Erasing a tweet can be counterproductive, bringing accusations of cover-up. Yet leaving it there, regardless of subsequent tweets regretting the error, leaves obvious problems.
The Frontline,though, brought a tweet into a TV programme, throwing it not only at Gallagher but also at the nation. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to a tweet they would never have known about otherwise. However, after failing first in not checking the bona fides of the tweeter, it then compounded the error by missing the clarification. A quick retraction or apology is not just online etiquette but also offers a legal defence.
Yet the temptation to lob tweets into the debate wasn’t an isolated moment that led to The Frontline’s problems. It was a symptom of the years during which media and public have developed an awkward symbiosis.
Viewer texts, phone-ins, tweets and emails are now staples of broadcasting, used to fulfil a supposed need to break into every pause with a “Mary in Celbridge says . . . ”
It was once forced and stilted; now it has become integral to the point where few question its value beyond the rather knowing “Twitter machine” approach of Vincent Browne. Newstalk has even turned it into a cash crop, charging listeners 30c every time they want to express an opinion by text.
Twitter, though, is a rich field from which to harvest opinions. It appears to require no effort other than scrolling down a webpage. The Frontline’s misstep will for years be held up as an example of why that is not the case (unless something worse comes along in the meantime).
The programme believed the tweet was from an “official source”, but Twitter is not a newswire service: it is a conversation. Normal journalistic standards need apply. Pat Kenny would never have been fed information allowing him to say “a person on the street who says he’s involved in the campaign has just shouted that the man will be produced in the morning”.
Inadvertently, he did pretty much that.