Much internet journalism at level equivalent to Stone Age

Thu, Jan 3, 2013, 00:00

A few months ago, I was told by an online media expert that, on the basis of a column of mine, he often cites me as an example of someone who doesn’t know how to make the best use of Twitter.

I was delighted. In common with most other new media outlets, Twitter is used mainly as a platform for corporate advertising and self-promotion; spreading gossip, rumour and lies; and heaping abuse upon others. Who would want to be considered as anything but inept in that sphere?

I don’t follow the right people, according to the expert. Perhaps he’s correct. Perhaps it would be more enlightening to read what Noam Chomsky is having for his breakfast, rather than Stephen Fry. Someone I do follow on Twitter is Piers Morgan, who, aside from being a shameless self-promoter, is extremely witty and, surprisingly, quite self-deprecating. He also likes to correct the grammar of other tweeters.

It’s all very basic stuff, amounting to little more than what a dwindling number of us would have learnt before leaving primary school – such as the differences between “were” and “where”; “hear” and “here”; and “there”, their” and “they’re” – but which nowadays is unlikely to have been taught to a substantial number of those making their way through university.

Twitter would serve a more useful purpose if other passably literate tweeters followed Morgan’s lead. Although they would have their work cut out, given how long it’s been since educators in Ireland and the UK considered learning the basic rules of written English to be of much importance to children.

New media takes itself very seriously indeed, except when charged with causing enormous damage to people’s lives by facilitating bullying, rumour-mongering and character assassination. Then its champions become coy and defensive. They invariably seek to downplay the role online harassment might have played in, for instance, causing someone to take his or her own life.

It is true, as the now stock defence has it, that suicide normally results from a combination of factors. However, it is ludicrous to pretend where a victim had been subjected to a campaign of online bullying and denigration that this was not the most likely reason for him or her taking their own life.

The more callous, if honest, defenders of anything-goes-on-the-internet adopt a dismissive “if they can’t stand the heat …” attitude.

Arguably, politicians are fair game and, even more so, columnists and commentators (who, unlike politicians, can air their views on whatever subject they like, without ever having to seek any kind of public endorsement), but the majority of people being bullied belong to neither of these groups.

They are for the most part everyday citizens who, whether they’ve chosen to make use of new media or not, are entitled to protection. Those who claim a democratic right to free speech as an excuse for posting whatever they like online forget that even in the most liberal of democracies there are strict limitations on freedom of expression, and for good reason.

Having said all of that, anyone who refuses to accept that today’s new media is a portent of the future is delusional. Proof, if any were needed, is provided by newspapers such as this one, which aren’t giving away free copies online as an act of charity, or because they want to appear fashionable by keeping pace with a passing trend.

Traditional news media outlets are struggling to survive; scrabbling to find a role for themselves in an approaching new order. However, as long as the mainstream holds to its standards, it will be a long time, if ever, before it is supplanted.

For all its immediacy and modernity, aside from what conventional media itself contributes, so-called internet journalism is at a level equivalent to the Stone Age. Its main consideration is attention-grabbing, not accuracy: “hits” matter more than fact-checking.

It would be entirely self-defeating for established media outlets to drop to a similar level in an effort to compete for advertising. In particular, care must be taken that online comment sections are not allowed sink to the standard of Twitter.

Why should the same levels of decorum and proof required of those hoping to be published on the letters page of the print edition of a newspaper not apply to its online contributors? Posters might well imagine that a pseudonym makes them untraceable, and therefore free to say whatever they want, but there is no reason why a newspaper should play along. Indeed, there are many reputational and legal reasons why it should not.

As long as mainstream media sticks to the basic requirements of good journalism, eventually the online citizens’ version will be forced to comply (either that, or invent a more accurate name for itself). Hopefully, the correct use of English, whether written or spoken, will remain an integral part of those standards.

But we cannot afford to be complacent. Only the other day, I heard a television reporter constantly use “disinterested” in place of “uninterested”, obviously believing that those two words mean the same thing.

Perhaps she should start following Piers Morgan on Twitter.

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