August 10, 2009
My dad the newsman tells a story today that portended more than he realized at the time it actually went down. Years ago in a Midwestern town there was rumor of a raucous protest to take place at a local school board meeting. The town paper’s editor (who may or may not have been my dad) sent his reporter to cover the flap. When the reporter arrived on the scene, all was quiet, but he noticed people sitting around in their cars. So he knocked on a window and asked, “Is there going to be a protest here today?” The answer: “Not until the TV cameras show up.”When the reporter called his editor and described this scenario, he was told bluntly to return to the office. The editor refused to cover the stunt in the paper. Back then, this preemptive block had an impact, and news coverage of the protest was instantly watered down.
It is interesting to consider the implied journalistic ethical question: If a news event is contrived, should the media cover it? But guess what? In the age of social media and citizen journalism, for many events, especially on a local stage, this question really doesn’t matter. The community takes care of it — for better or for worse.
Think about the Town Hall Meetings on the Obama administration’s proposals for healthcare policy reform, now taking place nationwide. Amid suspicions that the protests raging coast to coast at these meetings are orchestrated by conservative interest groups, event organizers are well aware that every meeting is a You Tube campaign busting at the seems, ready to rip. Whether sanctioned news organizations cover the episodes or not, no matter the level of truth to the staging — the story can and will propagate within social media.
This reality can be leveraged with fear as its currency. Whether we believe the level of cahoots and bullying or not — the power shift of those making coverage happen is fascinating. An official position on whether news organizations should cover these events is almost moot. Airtime will happen at the hand of citizens.
My mind goes to other illustrations of these shifting tides:
- Think about the trembling restaurateur who has come to regard every diner as an amateur food critic. In fact, every amateur food critic is only one scathing post away from blogging a restaurant into oblivion.
- Customer service issues are no longer under the sole watchful eye of Consumer Reports, or other standard reviewing entities. With a few well-placed tweets, dissatisfied consumers, with their legions of followers, can unleash groundswells of change.
- Live events and political coverage have taken on new dimensions, with Twitter and the new acceptability of blogging live during events. With computers open and hand-helds ablaze, the coverage flows real-time. Gone are the days of stringers racing to payphones during breaks in the action, filing stories that will appear in the next day’s newspapers.
- Consider those abrasive but popular politicians who, even if not a single news organization ever quotes them again, can create bizarre and broken narratives through the channels of social media democratically available to all of us. A reasonable base of followers and a few keystrokes are all that it takes.
- Watch the burgeoning practice of reputation management in search engine marketing — used both to quickly plant the seeds of slander and erase the traces of the same, sometimes within hours. Celebrities are well served by having this know-how on staff, and it’s hardly a learned profession. It’s just knowing one’s way around keyword behavior and optimization. This crafty version of damage control works hand in hand with social media and buzz campaigning.
Some of these trends are important and liberating. Some of them are disturbing and kind of sad. But one thing is certain: The gateway to coverage is no longer the exclusive watch of sanctioned news organizations. While philosophic statements can be made on the validity of a news event by seeing whether or not a news organization opts to cover it — increasingly, such stand-offs are only symbolic. If the social sphere wants something covered, it will be covered.
This phenomenon says nothing of quality, accuracy and value standards. We can debate whether citizen journalism coverage is more or less potent than that of the big dogs — but there’s no doubt that coverage itself has been totally redefined in this age of social media.
Kendall Allen runs most of her media and marketing pursuits through a company she established, Influence Collective, LLC, based in New York City. The group advises and manages special projects in integrated media and marketing for clients, including Carolyn & Co. Media, where Kendall is overseeing the launch of upcoming digital publishing and community ventures for women and career. Contact her here.