Last night, what started as a quick trip downstairs for a drink of water turned into an hour and a half snooping session on Facebook – intended to aid me back off to sleep, but in fact something that made it rather difficult to put my phone down!
What’s relevant about this you might ask?
Well, it reminded me of just how much the ‘citizen journalist’ has changed our job as PR professionals and the role of the media.
I remember working in PR ten years ago, when we were only just beginning to understand how social media could support with good engagement. I chuckle to think about the time when Twitter came on the scene, and our PR director – the very ‘early-adopter’ Chris Lines – had us all frantically securing Twitter handles for our clients, on what was anticipated to be a huge new social platform… He wasn’t wrong, was he?!
Anyway, the specific article that got me thinking was a piece about an alleged assault, which was posted on social media by the local newspaper. The article attracted a huge amount of interaction on Facebook, most of it rather critical of the reporting of the story – which, quite rightly, covered only the facts provided by the police.
The victim of the alleged assault, a young girl, had posted a detailed version of her account of what had happened on her Facebook page, something that had been shared more than 5,000 times. The newspaper, bound by rules laid out by the British legal system, was only able to report on facts supplied by the police, which had substantially less detail than that which the girl had posted.
The criticism levelled at the newspaper for its “misreporting” was intense. Even after several explanations that it was limited in terms of the information it could report, so as not to compromise the case, the ‘dressing down’ from angry members of the public – many of whom it seemed had already found the alleged attackers guilty – continued to flow.
In a world in which people are able to amplify their messages through social media, to the extent that they can potentially reach all corners of the world, is it right that the media cannot share the same?
The ethics of journalism are the born out of the values we hold so dear as a nation. Free speech, of course, principal among them, is something that we all believe we have a right to – and often the media can be a vehicle for these views and opinions in columns and quotes.
However, as importantly, newspapers have a responsibility to uphold values like ‘innocent until proven guilty’ – the right to an uncompromised court case that delivers a verdict that has not been biased by media reporting and the ensuing weight of public opinion.
While the citizen journalist has brought a whole new dimension to the way in which we consume news, and the way in which we can engage with them from a PR point-of-view, the unfortunate fact that we – as citizen journalists – have not signed up to a code of conduct and do not fully understand the legal system in the way our qualified counterparts do, means that we have power in our hands that often goes beyond that which we are capable of handling responsibly. The result: many of us can easily become journalist, judge and jury, without actually being any one of these things.