At War: Journalism vs Social Media Rules of Engagement

If journalist pillage social media for stories, they may find themselves on the receiving end of vicious campaigns by social networks. Eg Alice Hoffman vs Boston Glove Reviewer on Twitter. Those that live by the sword…

One of the rules of journalism that gets broken, unthinkingly, by us online is the name and shame convention. Journalists name senior executives for their naughtiness but tend to keep  junior members of an organisation anonymous. So if someone on the telephone was rude, it will be “a customer service representative from CompanyXYZ today…” not “Customer Service Representative Joe Smith who lives in North Sydney today said…”.

Bloggers and other social media contributors (i.e. all of us) tend to be unaware of this etiquette.  And that can cause problems.

I don’t think we’re entirely to blame though – even journalists get a bit lost navigating the minefield of value systems, ethics and privacy in the new age of openness and public discussions. Note how often tweets or Facebook photos appear in magazines and newspapers and I’m convinced that in some cases no permission would’ve been given for them to be published.


If journalists take our content and broadcast our stories beyond our usual personal audience, we will take actions that they won’t see as being ethical, without even realising it.  Namely, naming, shaming, discussing, dissecting, offering up gossipy tidbits, dredging up the past, suggesting mutual contacts of the journalist.

Why? because when a group of people get together to discuss something, they throw all the collective knowledge in the pot – good, bad, useful, useless – in it goes. And then grab a spoon and stir it up. Oh boy do we stir it up.  And if there are angry comments, feelings hurt, illusions shredded, niavety sundered, well, that’s just a match to a tinderbox. Whoosh! “Everyone email his editor!” “Let’s all fax MediaWatch” “I know his wife, let’s call her and tell her what we think of her darling husband – telephone number 02 1234 5678” and so on.

After all, if our private information, discussed in our social network (with no thought for the Invisible Audience) ends up on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, then why should the journalist remain safe from prying eyes?

Remember the journalist that copied and pasted from the teenage Doofer forum about the girl that disappeared at a doof party?  That was in 2006. What do you think that forum would do today, the parents, the school? And if the community is not ready to raise up today, what about next year if it happened then?  Let me show you what happens when social media writer/published author is aggrieved with a newspaper writer – and both have a broadcast medium to play in. It doesn’t have to be personal information from social media sites being published – just something the subject didn’t like in the newspaper.

Popwatch found this story first

There’s nothing quite like using Twitter to rally your supporters in a time of crisis — just ask the Mythbusters — but author Alice Hoffman seems to have gone a bit too far.

The writer took her grievances to Twitter after Boston Globe reviewer Roberta Silman issued a mildly negative review of her new book ‘The Story Sisters.’ (more at Switched)

  1. “Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a moron. How do some people get to review books? And give the plot away.”
  2. “Now any idiot can be a critic. Writers used to review writers. My second novel was reviewed by Ann Tyler. So who is Roberta Silman?”
  3. “No wonder there is no book section in the Globe anymore — they don’t care about their readers, why should we care about them”
  4. “If you want to tell Roberta Silman off her phone is [Silman’s number here]. [Silman’s email here]. Tell her what u think of snarky critics.”

How does Alice Hoffman recover from here? I mean a few pissy comments at a book launch can be recovered with flowers/chocolates and apologies. Public forever-online snark might jeopardise publishing contracts. Though the book world seems to like anarchic troublemaking creatives. Goes with the territory.

Who knew the world of book reviewing was thwart with passion and intrigue and guns and vigilantism? Actually wherever you have passion and writing and people being open and vulnerable about their beliefs, you have a dangerous mix.

Julie Posetti wrote an interesting article on MediaShift (at about Twitter and journalism and changes to the relationship between newspaper writers and social media writers. I made this comment there, and am even more convinced of it now:

I don’t think we expect the comments/tweets not to be repeated but the unwritten social contract stipulates somewhere, in fine print 😛 that the rippled discussion be contextually relevant and not blown out of proportion. The tweeter will see journalists as vultures, preying on community discussion and denounce them. Right. Wrong. They don’t care. There will be war.This mob is just feeling their power and – hard to believe, I know – will bring journalists into line, not vice versa. We won’t go back to hiding our discussions behind our hands, we’ll teach journalists to watch what they publish.

Incidentally, I’m not an advocate for this coming war, I’ve just seen and have a great respect for The Mob. Journalists who publish tweets without asking permission first WILL have their home numbers published, their editors private mobile numbers published and photos of their kids put up online. Disgusting yes, but the mob will point as one and say “they started it!”.

If a writer uses social media to ferret out a story and negatively affect the subject, the subject will use social media to ferret out more information and respond. Doesn’t matter if that writer is a journalist with a moral imperative to report the News or a blogger with a moral imperative to report their own news.

Amusing update from PopWatch – where Alice Hoffman is the reviewer.

UPDATE: Thanks to a tipster, we stumbled upon an interview with author Richard Ford, in which he admits

Will we shoot the review on a PC?
Will we shoot the review on a PC?

to putting a gunshot hole through a book written by a writer who panned one of his books. The reviewer? Alice Hoffman. An excerpt:

Robert Birnbaum: Are you going to go out and  shoot it? Is that a true story that your wife took a pistol and shot a bad  review Alice Hoffman gave you?

Richard Ford: Yes, it is a true story.  Shot her book. Seemed so good to do. We had another copy so I went out and  shot it. I don’t read my reviews anymore.

Birnbaum: Well, that  might save you on ammunition.”

Who knew that putting yourself on the line, rating, reviewing, giving an opinion, sharing your passion to a Public could be so dangerous? Oh wait, we did!

It’s not all doom and gloom. Journalists who build up reputation and trust in social networks will be safe from all but the most unhinged of activities. Why? Because whoever they are – shock jock, thoughtful commentator, reporter – will be revealed and accepted by their audience. No point complaining about Alan Jones or John Laws (who’s filling THAT void, eh?) cos we know what they are like. Unknown reporters though will be targets. Get a profile – in online communities –  that’s my advice. And no, it’s not transferrable (much) from the real world papers newspapers.

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  1. I work as a journalist and Tweet a lot, mostly as an individual.
    I’ve always assumed that everything I say or do on Twitter is there for anyone to use or reproduce as they see fit. If I wanted it otherwise, I would make them private.
    That’s not me saying that journos should be indiscriminate in the way they use social media. They should apply the usual sensitivies and not use social media without permission when there is clearly no intention for the content to be re-used or no capacity to seek permission ( especially in cases of grief as discussed on this week’s Media Watch.)
    I’ve therefor developed what I think are two important protocols for referring to tweets in my work.
    One is that when I tweet about stories I wrote or edited I also write “[plug]” so that followers can see what I am up to.
    The other is that I always quote a tweet in full and link to it. And I tend to only use tweets from Twitterers who have already hung out a shingle as a commentator, either as professional analyst or blogger.
    I’ve never had a negative response to my use of social media in this way.
    .-= Simon Sharwood´s last blog ..Post 18, 2009: Journalists and musicians =-.

    1. exactly. you are a journalist and think that way.
      Most don’t. Think of Think of kids on the doof forum. Think of Mike tweeting to 22 people that he was unfollowing me and then ending up on Mumbrellas blog. Think of the soldier who was killed in Afganistan and his KIDS pictures from Facebook end up in the paper. Think of the guy who is in court for alleged abuse and his joining I Want To Slap Slow Moving People In The Back OF The Head group on Facebook as being an example of his violent tendencies (by the press). Think of the twins killed in Victorian bushfires and their last status updates being published in The Australian. Think of the Exxon intern who tweeted to 17 followers that the Exxon spill in Galapagos as not as bad as the competitors.

      Journalists are thinking “broadcast” “publish” “audience” “reach”. Non Journalist people are thinking “17 followers” “25 Facebook friends” “chatting” “mucking around”.

      But you are right – contextually you are immersed in Twitter – I doubt you would hijack a 16 year old’s tweet or take stuff out of context. After all, public figures know they are public figures. Citizen Tweeter hasn’t figured that out yet. And because you ARE immersed, the audience is more forgiving. Half -in, half-out tech journos like Asher Moses makes errors that are hard to forgive – taking stuff from blogs for a negative spin, while tweeting (and trying to delete) catastrophes himself.

  2. Hi Laurel
    Important subject. The examples above are split between blogs, forums, tweets and facebook comments. Don’t people come onto twitter and publish blogs knowing their information is then in the public forum, as opposed to facebook and forums which are more ambiguous? Perhaps social media platforms have a responsibility to make this clear to their users.
    Cheers, Chris

    1. Interesting Chris – why is a forum (many to many, asynchronous) discussion less public than Twitter (few to few, synchronous, half gated community)?

      I think – no, I know, from discussions – that most people treat Twitter like the pub. They know they are in a public place but it just makes them talk louder… 😛

  3. I recently informally surveyed the activities of 25 or so journalists and news outlets from Australia and New Zealand who are using Twitter.The list was mainly made up of tech journalist, so this would be people with a better understanding of social media than just run-of-the-mill journos.

    At the risk of sounding arrogant, I’d say the majority don’t actually understand Twitter. Only 40 percent were actively engaging with other twitterers. The majority simply see it as yet another broadcast media. Admittedly this isn’t evidence of anything much, but it indicates to me there’s still a gulf between most journos and the whole social media world.
    .-= Bill Bennett´s last blog ..New Zealand media people on Twitter =-.

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