Last Sunday, we interrupted our weekly serialization of my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers, because of Father’s Day. Another interruption comes July 12, during San Diego Comic-Con. This week’s return completes the last of five journalisms, and the one that more than any other can lead to irresponsible news reporting.
Timing is interesting in context of the landmark Supreme Court ruling just two days ago that opens way for marriage between people of the same gender in all 50 states. There is a force of collective will washing across the Internet that could cause some journalists to bow before social pressure rather thcan offer probing analyses in second-day stories. For example, I see lots of quick criticism of the dissenting judges that doesn’t delve into the Constitutional concerns they raise, nor negative implications for rights-gainers with respect to taxes or other legal constructs. How much does the mob’s mood influence followups? My concern is process, and I express here no opinion about the ruling—just timing and context with respect to today’s mob journalism excerpt.
Responsible Reporting identities four other journalisms: Contextual, process, conversational. and advocacy. Two more are important, but are only briefly covered later in the book: data and immersive journalisms. Because the online news gatherer’s first responsible objective is the audience, there are legitimate concerns about how far audience pushback should go—particularly in relationship to advocacy and process journalisms. Simple solution, ethically: Write what you know to be true in the moment based on your reporting, not what the collective online will demands. Remember The Prime Directive.
Other excerpts from the book will help you understand your responsibility of following-the-reporting and sound-sourcing practices: Foreward and from Section 1, Chapters, I and II, III and IV, V and VI. Reminder: The book published in March 2014 and releases into the public domain soon after the serialization completes.
With that introduction…
V. Mob Journalism
Public opinion has long influenced the news, bringing bias into the storytelling. But in the age of context, like with advocacy journalism, social sharing tools amplify the reach. Advocacy and mob journalisms are tightly knit, another cliché two sides of the same coin. Both advocate a position, whether coming from curated editorial content or unfiltered raw reaction in comments, Tweets, or other manners of social sharing expression. Each journalism influences the other, figuratively flipping over the coin, whether the writer-advocate incites the mob or the crowd leads the reporting down directed paths—or simply makes news from something old.
I first used term “mob journalism”, off-handedly, in April 2010 to describe the social sharing response to a YouTube video about Nokia N97. Gruber posted “What a turd”, with link to the clip, precipitating a chain of shares, links, and other posts. The rapid response made the video news, but it wasn’t. The clip posted nearly eight months earlier.
Mob journalism is news generated by the crowd. The mob gets ahold of something one of its members deems interesting and widely spreads it. There is a different quality to mob journalism—a unified sense of rightness about what’s shared. In this one example, most of the linkers to the video share Gruber’s disdain. The chain of spreading connections highly influences opinion. Of course, most of the people ridiculing the Nokia N97 never used the device.
A good example of mob journalism and the news media’s response comes from the 2014 Winter Olympics. More than 2 million people signed a change.org petition to: “Open investigation into judging decisions of Women’s Figure Skating and demand rejudgement at the Sochi Olympics”. On Feb. 20, 2014, 17 year-old Russian native Adelina Sotnikova bested reigning gold medalist Yuna Kim during the free skate. Kim, from South Korea, was highly favored to take the gold medal.
The news media quickly spread stories about the “controversy”. As example, an ABC News report alleges corruption/conflict-of-interest among the judges. The banter between news anchor and journalist is accusing and sensational. But nowhere in the report or among many others is a vitally important fact mentioned. None of the participants in the skating competition had filed a complaint with the International Skating Union, which said as much in a proactive statement.
Media outlets responded to the public’s reaction. Interestingly, the South Korean Olympic Committee later protested the ladies’ figure skating results, but not immediately following the event as dictated by ISU rules. (Note: I could not independently verify the protest, which was widely reported.) The delay raises questions about the mob’s influence—amplified by news media reports—upon the KOC, particularly in a culture where saving face is so highly valued.
Thick as Thieves
However, mob journalism isn’t confined to the masses but extends to the collective group of journalists who report what is vogue because their peers do. Section three will further address this topic when discussing “The Follow”. Briefly, now, there is a tendency for feeding frenzies to develop around some news stories. The most disturbing: Where the public crowd leads to a media mob, which reinforces the original group’s advocacy. The reciprocal cycle too often fosters misinformation, where what people say is true trumps what actually is.
Preparing to write this section, I casually searched online for “mob journalism” and found something unexpected. Report: “The Media’s Role in Wrongful Convictions: How ‘mob journalism’ and media ‘tunnel vision’ turn journalists into tools of the prosecution”, which published in February 2014. From City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the paper presents three case studies—all from long before social media gave the mob rapid voice.
My definition of mob journalism overlaps that used by report author David Krajicek but is much broader. The Change.org petition is prime example, where the social media mob is the prosecution. The manner in which the news media participates is very similar to the perspective Krajicek’s case studies present.
Mob journalism is a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. The crowd’s voice—amplified across Facebook, Twitter, and similar sharing tools—can be useful for investigative and other types of reporting when wielded by discerning, responsible news gatherers. Mishandled, rapid-fire online reaction is too easily an assault rifle blasting apart anything but the mob’s viewpoint.
Mob journalism is where the audience rules the news.
Photo Credit: micadew