CAN TRUTH BE MANIPLULATED ON­LINE?

The Bulletin - - Front Page - Si­mon Holt column

THE woman who posted poor taste com­ments about be­ing Cau­casian and im­mune to AIDs got it hor­ri­bly wrong on so­cial me­dia.

Sure, her com­ment was ill-in­formed – mo­ronic, even. But the con­se­quences far out­weighed the crime, which es­sen­tially was to grossly mis­read pub­lic sen­ti­ment, and in­deed the way her com­ment would be in­ter­preted by the prey­ing masses.

The poor bloke who fell asleep at a base­ball game in the United States was equally cru­ci­fied. As fate would have it, his lapse in the stands was – al­beit in­ad­ver­tent – a poor read on pub­lic sen­ti­ment. Who knew he’d be so harshly judged for choos­ing to nap in pub­lic?

Hun­dreds have been harshly judged, rightly or wrongly, by so­cial me­dia. Day in, day out, we too as jour­nal­ists are judged. What we write, how we present it, which vi­su­als we use – our read­ers and their friends are our jury.

There is an ar­gu­ment which sug­gests noth­ing has changed. Peo­ple judged news­pa­pers for hun­dreds of years. They wrote let­ters to the edi­tor to com­plain about fac­tual er­rors, story choice, and mat­ters of taste. They stood around the wa­ter cooler, along the bar, or at the din­ner ta­ble to as­sess the news and how it had been played out.

But plenty has changed. The speed in which a groundswell of opin­ion can be gen­er­ated has changed. An is­sue which would have pre­vi­ously blown over as yes­ter­day’s er­ror can be in the face of an edi­tor or re­porter within min­utes.

Re­cently, my own news or­gan­i­sa­tion pre­sented a story about a teacher who had com­mit­ted sui­cide. It was found the po­ten­tial rea­son was be­cause he had been ac­cused on the in­ter­net of an al­leged his­tory – 30 years ago as a young man – of pae­dophilia.

The teacher was much-loved by those he taught, who had only heard pub­licly of his death min­utes be­fore we chose to pub­lish. The facts of the story weren’t wrong, but the tone of the ar­ti­cle was ill-timed. We had mis­read pub­lic sen­ti­ment, and about 700 com­ments in 40 min­utes told us so, in no un­cer­tain terms.

Some years ago, stuff. co.nz told New Zealand its yachting team had choked by blow­ing a mas­sive lead in the America’s Cup.

“I, driv­ing to work, made a de­ci­sion that yes we had choked. The rest of the coun­try was griev­ing the loss and ... to be fair, I prob­a­bly got the tone wrong,” then-edi­tor Mark Stevens re­calls.

“We had the Amer­i­can crew fists in the air, fists pump­ing, cel­e­brat­ing, and we had the head­line across the top ‘Choke on this New Zealand’. We had choked, but the au­di­ence didn’t want to see that from us.

“Do I re­gret it? Prob­a­bly not. Did they for­give us? Ab­so­lutely. Maybe the rea­son they for­gave us was be­cause of that part­ner­ship be­tween us and the reader, where they were very quickly able to give me a mes­sage that I got it wrong.”

Again, the er­ror was not the con­tent. Rather, it was the tone. It was a mis­un­der­stand­ing of pub­lic sen­ti­ment.

Each day, story judge­ments are made with pub­lic sen­ti­ment in mind. While it doesn’t usu­ally dic­tate a de­ci­sion, it can most cer­tainly di­rect the tone of a news ar­ti­cle – whether that be a con­scious de­ci­sion, or one guided by gut feel.

The ques­tion is whether ed­i­tors are soft­en­ing their stance in fear of the rapid pub­lic back­lash which so­cial me­dia can pro­vide. I per­son­ally would like to think not. But the po­ten­tial is cer­tainly there.

At pub­lic fo­rums, a com­mon ques­tion arises: “Is the in­ter­net dumb­ing down the qual­ity of jour­nal­ism?”

They are, of course, re­fer­ring to what they per­ceive to be an in­creas­ing num­ber of sto­ries about the Kar­dashi­ans and oth­ers which de­mand high traf­fic num­bers.

“The me­dia,” they say, tar­ring all with the same brush. Harsh re­al­ity says that peo­ple should be look­ing as much, gener­i­cally, at “the pub­lic” as they should be judg­ing “the me­dia”. Story se­lec­tion is eas­ily scru­ti­nised, but far more sub­tle are the choices which are be­ing made with po­ten­tial pub­lic sen­ti­ment in mind.

An edi­tor once said: “Never cam­paign on an is­sue un­less you know you have 80 per cent sup­port.” It was never pos­si­ble to gauge ab­so­lute num­bers, but those who were clearly on the ground in their com­mu­nity, un­der­stand­ing of their au­di­ence, would get it right more of­ten than not.

These fun­da­men­tals re­main the same, and clearly dic­tate that the prin­ci­ples of fair and bal­anced jour­nal­ism should re­main the core fo­cus of news­rooms.

Out­side in­flu­encers, not least the ca­pa­bil­ity for re­ac­tionary sen­ti­ment to groundswell out of con­trol, are chang­ing. The re­spon­si­ble thing is for news or­gan­i­sa­tions to re­act to the de­mands of their au­di­ence with­out com­pro­mis­ing their role to tell the truth as they know it.

Tra­di­tion­al­ists on the news­room floor who be­lieve jour­nal­ists should be given free reign might beg to dif­fer. But done prop­erly, a re­ac­tive ap­proach to pub­lic sen­ti­ment equates to pub­lic gov­er­nance of the me­dia – and a con­se­quent rise in stan­dards off the back of high-end scru­tiny.

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