News Flash: Internet Rants Aren't News

PUBLISHED: January 11, 2013

The explosive growth of social media gives voice to millions, indeed billions, of people world-wide who might otherwise never be heard. Access to the Internet is the digital-age correction for A.J. Liebling’s decades-old observation that, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

But conventional news outlets, enamored of Facebook and Twitter and eager to join their conversations, increasingly give space and credibility to online chatter that ordinarily wouldn’t deserve either.

In December, when a nurse at a London hospital hanged herself after being victimized by a phone prank originating at an Australian radio station, there was a torrent of opinion online. ABC News plucked two tweets from among thousands and ran them full-screen. One, aimed at the radio hosts, said, “You scumbag, I hope you get what’s coming to you!” The other warned, “You have blood on your hands now.”

Had such comments from the general public reached ABC News by any other method—from email to carrier pigeon—there is virtually no chance they would have been deemed newsworthy. Indeed, they probably would have been viewed as incendiary. Yet mainstream reporters increasingly treat social media as part of the story, conflating media with messages.

On television as well as on newspaper websites, anonymous tweets—sometimes in endless crawls at the bottom of the screen—have become staples. They fall short of the basic standards for author identification that most publications require for letters to the editor.

Ed Schultz’s MSNBC program, “The Ed Show,” presents a barrage of Twitter messages that are more distracting than informative. The other night, for instance, during coverage of the lawsuit by AIG shareholders against the government, one tweet informed viewers that “AIG is nothing but a bunch of greedy punks.”

And mainstream producers could hardly contain themselves when the girlfriend of Alabama football star A.J. McCarron became an Internet sensation during the BCS title game this week. TV shots of Katherine Webb prompted hundreds of thousands of people to follow her on Twitter, leading to even more TV coverage, which in turn triggered more tweets. It underscored the fact that relentlessly reporting social-media comments on trivial subjects has the effect of further trivializing them.

Late last month, NBC’s “Today” show blurred things by including anonymous Internet posts in two stories that were, themselves, about media. The first concerned a decision by the Journal News newspaper to print the names and addresses of everyone with a legal gun permit residing in its coverage area north of New York City.

According to NBC’s story: “One Facebook user writes, the paper is ‘. . . treating legal gun owners like criminals.’ Another says, ‘This is the most disgusting act of journalism ever.’”

Had NBC sent a reporter to conduct on-street interviews with people living in the area, the comments might have had some validity. But in addition to being faceless and nameless, the Internet posts NBC chose to run could have come from anywhere in the world.

The second story focused on the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Randi, who was miffed because her Facebook photo of a family gathering was tweeted globally without her permission. NBC again turned to an anonymous post saying, “If the Zuckerbergs can’t even figure out Facebook’s privacy settings, how are we supposed to?”

At least this post made sense, noting the irony of the Zuckerberg family being confounded by its own creation. Even more ironic is that Randi Zuckerberg serves on what NBC calls its Digital Advisory Committee. One piece of good advice she could give the news division would be to stop running anonymous comments from Facebook and Twitter. Another would be to refrain from retransmitting photos from the public that haven’t been authenticated.

And, as a general rule regarding social media, stop awarding the prize of mass distribution to whoever is most outrageous.

(C) Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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