Ranjona Banerji: Are journalists taking the shortcut of gathering news via social media?

14 Jul,2015

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Is social media important when it comes to newsgathering? Are journalists using social media to bypass traditional means of newsgathering? Is this laziness? Or is it keeping track of an essential new medium?

 

The answer most likely is yes to all the questions. It is impossible to ignore social media but it is encouraging too many journalists, young and old, to take shortcuts and the easy way out. This does not have to do with the social class or the educational levels of a society. It has to do with the lazy belief that social media represents such a large swathe of society that it has to take front and centre compared to all groups.

 

Strangely, all of us who are very active on social media know very well that this importance is not fully justified. To quote that much quoted line from TS Eliot, we all prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet and never more so than on social media. Few people are ever themselves. The focus is often on anonymous internet trolls for their abuse or their hidden and/or open agendas. But internet trolls might well be the most honest creatures out there. They reveal more about themselves than most of us who use open forums like Twitter to share information or links or opinions.

 

Either way, the masks people wear make can make social media a false god at the altar of truth. This is what journalists have to be wary of as they collect information and opinions. Sadly, there is no better way of finding out how people think than by talking to them face to face.

 

Of course, Twitter is not the villain in all this. Years ago, we came across the breed of telephone journalists and their dial-a-quote respondents. This lot never left office to do their stories. Some rather foolish editors – unfortunately many of them were promoted mediocre sub-editors or management stooges or both – felt that reporters were wasting time on the field and needed to be seen (by them) in the office. The landline telephone was pushed forward as the best newsgathering device. I have seen this policy being implemented to the great detriment of the newspaper I worked in then and have heard enough horror stories about similar policies in papers across the world. In most such cases, some MBA had done some kind of a study and decided that it profits a newspaper or journal more if a reporter does all his or her work in office. You do not have to be a genius to see the extreme folly of such an idea: just a proper journalist.

 

Imagine the fun you can have with a mobile phone. Produce byline after byline just by going through social media, never meeting anyone. Most of this criticism is aimed at the print media. TV dances to a different drummer and 24-hour news television cannot survive if all reporters are forced to sit in their offices.

 

It is hardly surprising in India at least that websites like scroll.in and the now thewire.in gained readers just by sending people out to do stories. Few newspapers still follow that path. And yet one of the best stories I read this Sunday was in the Indian Express headlined “Dabang Didi”, about a woman who had turned into a sort of Robin Hood vigilante for her area. She refused to play victim after she was raped. Not exactly possible via Twitter.

 

***

 

The anatomy of an internet troll remains an amusing subject though. Bestselling author Chetan Bhagat wrote a column about why pro-BJP trolls abuse some women on Twitter. This caused hysteria amongst Bhagat’s supporters and detractors. And led to a discussion on Nidhi Razdan’s Left Right and Centre on NDTV.

 

However, as was evident from the TV show and the reactions on social media, the troll is less dangerous and but far more pervasive and a fitter survivor than the fairy-tale creature after which it is named.

 

I have a simple solution to them: mock or block.

 

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