Monday, June 23, 2008

Don't Scoop Before We Tell You To: When Social Networking and MSM Worlds Collide

When it comes to "the news," getting a scoop used to be a good thing. Now, not so much. But what can the mainstream do about it when scoops leak out through social media--get you fired or delete your posts perhaps. The New York Times reports on how a "junior employee" at Internet Broadcasting Services updated Tim Russert's Wikipedia entry before the story of Russert's death was revealed by NBC and MSNBC. The Times calls the junior employee's actions "instinct" and "a flash of idealism" that may have cost the junior his/her job--that's what NBC was told.

Scooping the wrong moment in history simply by trying to keep the public record current can have some serious consequences. But these consequences are the further consequences of the quickness of information dissemination. We now have many unchecked-by-msm-channels, that reach many people. We can "get the word out" to our communities as quick as we can get out a disaster video. Dissemination of information through simple social media channels can be something of a can-of-worms for participants in the social side of local media as well:

In July '07, Springfield, MA resident and social activist Michaelann Bewsee (who blogs at Michaelann Land), and is a regular contributor to the conversation at Forums, made a forum post that her nephew had been sent home from his job at the local Wendy's and the store closed "for good." When Michaelann posted this item, she had no idea that she might be scooping the local press on a really huge story: the the closing of all 12 Wendy's stores owned by Robert Burda of Ohio, who had not paid State taxes in years and was bankrupt.

All Michaelann was doing was relaying some very important information. Yet her post may have been deleted because of this very action. Her account was also deleted--for a reason unknown to her. It is my understanding that it took her several weeks to get a rather terse reply from a staff member regarding her account, which was eventually restored.

Yet, this may not have been the first time that's forums and blogs were the source of scoops or original reports. Michaelann's post on the Wendy's closing, however, was first time I'd heard that someone's account, not just a post, may have been deleted because she quite possibly scooped the newsroom.

Now,'s editors may have deleted the post to head off possible heresay on a matter that might have had a negative consequence against a local business. Masslive's editors might also say that Bewsee is a thorn in their side and that her account was deleted for other reasons. But, if she *did* scoop the local media bigtime--well, we may never know the answer to that....

Between both incidents, social networks through social media are conveying timely information before it hits the msm. This, however, raises some questions: how do we know if the source of the information is trustworthy? Should the persons disseminating the information be penalized? and, is this original reporting/an act of journalism or divulging privileged information ? Perhaps this is a kind of "flash journalism"--the text version of the cellphone camera videos of disasters. Since it is text, though, we may have to consider the trustworthiness of the person disseminating the story. With the IBS employee, if we know that IBS receives reports before they hit most msm affiliate outlets, then we can be sure that IBS is a reliable source. If we know that Michaelann's nephew really does work for Wendy's, and/or that she is trustworthy and credible within the community (regardless of what is thought of her politics), then we can be sure that she's a reliable source of a story needs further investigation.

Yet in both cases, employee or poster should not be penalized for their actions if they have no knowledge of policy regarding the dissemination of certain kinds of information. It is not just that they are conveying information in a similar way to an on-the-spot cellphone film of a disaster, but that they are credible sources for that information, and that they are doing a public service by disseminating that information. If IBS considered that information to be privileged or time-sensitive, it should have informed its employees in some way. A company cannot expect its employees to "just know" information like that. Likewise in Michaelann's case--she should have been informed that her post may be considered heresay and that the reporters were going to investigate further. That could easily have been done in a post to the thread on the forums by a Masslive editor.

Expecting employees and forum posters to "just know" is something akin to Transgressing the Unwritten Law of Dinsdale Piranha.

In other words: make a policy, make people aware of it, and don't fire/delete people before a policy is set in place.

Further: JD Lasica raises the notion that this kind of action is "generational"--I'd say that it's not generational, but cultural. It just so happens that the IBS employee was "junior"--but Michaelann isn't. There are many, many folks in middle-age and even older that are online and are *very* social, sometimes in place young people are, sometimes not. These are the "early adopters" who have been active online before many young people ever got a computer. We are, unfortunately, not a glamorous demographic that's suitable for marketers and are often overlooked. Let's not mistake cultural shifts, nor forget the folks who've started the shift, because of the glamorous nature of generational politics. Also see Tameka Kee's "Step Away from the Computer, Kids: Baby Boomers Embrace Social Media: When it comes to social media, some 70% of consumers age 50 and up said that their online community was "very" or "extremely" important to them. So much so that almost 70% of them log on daily or several times a day. In contrast, just about half of all social network members under age 20 said the same.


Anonymous said...

This is just another extension of the 24/7 news world and another nail in the coffin of the twice-a-day news cycle of old. The MSM can run around firing and banning people for allowing raw information to squeeze out of the machine, but fundamentally -- as you note -- this information is raw and carries the weight only of the person posting it. I haven't looked, but in the Russert case, it's exactly the kind of Wikipedia change that would get reverted by Central Control on sight until it was confirmed by an MSM story.

That having been said, there are many things I find out from social networks not because they are raw information, but because I sometimes don't have time for whole papers while I do have time for RSS feeds. If someone like you puts up a status like "I can't believe Tim Russert's dead," that will send me to the MSM looking for the details. The catch here is that I got the tip from social networking, not from the MSM's front page.

I know people who read MSM stories mostly through posting and sharing from their friends, not by going to the home page of any MSM media outlet or even an aggregator like NewsTrust. It's an interesting time. Anyone who thinks he or she can predict where this will all end will either end up very wrong or, in only a handful of cases, very rich.

Tish Grier said...

Mike...really important points about how we get information, which is, mostly from exchanges with others in our networks.

And, yes, the "approved" filters aren't going to stop that from happening. It's the way we've always shared information. I can't tell you how many times friends and I have said "did you hear about..." and *then* went to MSM to read the details.

We have our informal sources, and our formal sources. It just scares the crap out of MSM to know that they're not the kings of all sources.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Tish, for framing this issue.

I never did get a clear-cut response from MassLive about what I did wrong, but I may have figured it out for myself. I posted a message about the Wendy's closings on every forum where there was a Wendy's that closed it's doors. I thought it newsworthy for each community, but later, after reviewing MassLive policy, I found out it's not allowed to post the same message on more than one forum. Whether there were deeper reasons for my banning, I will never know.

I think I've only "scooped" MassLive a couple of times. What I'm more likely to see happen is that I post about an issue I'm tracking, such as the world food crisis or the need for community gardens, a couple of months before the mainstream media picks it up. I don't do it on purpose, but it feels good when it happens!

Tish Grier said...

Hi Michaelann! well, if it's in the forum policy not to post to multiple forums, then, yes, that could be the reason for removal. Then again, they should have looked at the posts. If they're actually visually moderating vs. automated moderation, they might have seen the content and not removed it....

Oh, well...

I think anyone who follows a particular issue or trend will end up scooping MSM from time to time. You're seeing it before they do :-)