Can’t See the Forest for the Tweets

Over the weekend, I was reading coverage of the slow-motion PR nightmare that is Tiger Woods’ car accident/domestic drama/etc. Of course, being me, I’m not really concerned about why his wife was wielding a nine-iron or why he was peeling out of his driveway in the middle of the night. I’m more concerned about this graf in the Associated Press’ story from Saturday:

Aside from occasional criticism of his temper inside the ropes, he has kept himself out of the news outside his sport. In an October posting on his Facebook account, Woods wrote, “I’m asked why people don’t often see me and Elin in gossip magazines or tabloids. I think we’ve avoided a lot of media attention because we’re kind of boring. …”

Curious, I looked up Tiger Woods’ Facebook “account” (read: fan page). It’s a fairly active and well maintained (not by him, obvs.) presence, with 1.2 million fans. Like many fan pages, it pulls in content from external sources. And in this case, the above quote actually came from one of those sources — the “Dear Tiger” fanmail section of Tiger Woods.com. Thus, the AP story misrepresents the source of that quote — which has been widely published and republished in print and on the web by AP subscribers.

This is not a grievous offense, but it does speak to the pervasive problem of social media illiteracy in the mainstream media.

One of the first things you learn — in high school, much less j-school — is the difference between a primary source and a secondary source. In this case, with the fanmail page including first-person responses from Woods, I believe that can be considered a primary source. In this article, the author, AP sportswriter Fred Goodall, failed to make that distinction by attributing the content as belonging to Facebook.

There is a semantic difference between “posting” and “sharing.” If you describe something as a “posting on his Facebook account,” you are — according to the lexicon of the medium — attributing primary source characteristics to the content on Facebook, when in fact all Facebook is serving as is a conduit for sharing the content. For all intents and purposes, it might as well be a wall in a┬ácommon area where a printout has been tacked up. In a research paper or newspaper article, would you cite the wall?

Why is it hard for someone like Goodall to do this basic assessment of his sources? Is it because it’s “cooler” to cite Facebook postings in your story? If so, you’re not only misleading your readers, but your misrepresenting Tiger Woods as someone who posts personal updates to a Facebook account, much like you or I (or Chad Ochocinco) might. Woods’ Facebook presence is an online outpost of his athletic industry, not a personal mouthpiece, like Ochocinco’s Twitter account. And that’s fine. But in reporting, the distinction is increasingly important, especially if we’re going to start throwing attributions and citations around.

In a way, it’s hard to blame Goodall. He’s a sportswriter, not David Pogue. Should I expect him to know the different between a webpage and the posting of a link to that webpage on Facebook? Between a tweet piped in from Twitterfeed and someone’s own words?

The answer, actually, is yes. After all, I would expect him to know the difference between talking to the police spokesperson and talking to some guy who spoke to the police spokesperson. It’s a little different here — you can make the reasonable assumption that the same entity that maintains Tiger Woods’ website manages his Facebook profile. But I’m reaching that assumption with some level of savviness — the same savviness that led me to ascertain that Tiger Woods’ Facebook fan page was an official presence. Does Goodall have that savvy? Do his editors?

This is about understanding the context of information, and with new media, that context is changing. There are certainly instances when the sourcing is a little muddier, since imprints like Twitter’s verified accounts are not yet the standard (and there does not yet exist such confirmation for Facebook fan pages). We may not realize it, but in this space, we are relying a lot on savvy to help us assess the content we’re viewing. Savvy is great, but it doesn’t have its own AP stylebook.

In this new world of blended media, retweeting and link sharing, reporters should be able to do a basic parsing of content to determine its origin. There are many celebrities and organizations who do use Facebook and Twitter as direct mouthpieces to the public, breaking news and posting exclusive information via those channels. As those outlets continue to proliferate, and thus merit reporting by mainstream media, an understanding of the differences — between Facebook fan pages and profiles, managed presences and personal ones, and all of the many ways personalities and brands may use social media platforms — will be critical. Even for Fred Goodall.

Photo by monado/Flickr Creative Commons

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3 responses to “Can’t See the Forest for the Tweets

  1. Celebrity journalism uses Facebook postings as a source all the time. It’s certainly lazy sourcing, and I get what you’re saying, but at the same time I wonder how you want the journalist to determine context (by that I think you mean the voice behind the account) and how they should convey that to readers. If everyone knows celebrity Facebook accounts are run by PR people, then what’s the difference between quoting a Facebook status and quoting the spokesperson directly?

  2. I think journalists and editors need to acquire a level of savvy and context that will give them a better position from which to make those judgments. For starters, reporters and editors need to learn the difference between something that’s posted and something that’s shared. And if they’re unclear, they need to err on the side of caution. As with all things.

    Also, not all personalities’ social media presences are run by PR operatives. And if Chad Ochocinco posts “I retire from the NFL” on Twitter, that’s a solid news story right there, because he’s established that outlet as his personal mouthpiece. So with blurred usage, this knowledge becomes even more important.

  3. A great post on a topic that’s been a stick in my craw for some time now. Journalists need a firmer grasp on the fundamentals — the primary vs. secondary sources, as you point out — and learn to apply those fundamentals to any situation or medium. It just so happens that social media has become much more prevalent these days, and people aren’t yet quite sure what to make of it. Which is unfortunate. But, understanding the difference between types of sources at a fundamental level should help.

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