Friday, April 01, 2011

'Keeping the bastards honest' - government's new role in combatting mainstream media mistakes

Traditionally one of the roles of the 'free press' is to keep governments honest, to shine a light on inappropriate conduct, poor decisions and uncover corruption, falsehoods and backroom deals.

With the advent of social media I've been watching this role slowly twist into new forms and relationships.

One of the more interesting developments has been the take-up of social media by government to correct media mistakes.

Last century, when the 'big three' traditional media were the primary conduit of information to the public, often it was hard for government to challenge incorrect statements in the press. Politicians and agencies had to rely on 'friendly' media to carry the facts, and sometimes their voices were drowned out by commentators repeating a mistaken line.

With the growth of social media channels into highly effective news collection and distribution platforms, there is now a more even playing field.

Traditional media outlets can trumpet their view of the news and facts, just as they have for the last century or so. However government is also able to build and mobilise its own media distribution networks - at low cost and with massive reach.

This has led to a sea-change in the relationship between media and government which is still being worked through by all of the players involved.

Possibly the first strategic use of social media channels to correct media reports was by the US White House's Press Office several years ago. The Press Office naturally began to follow journalists via Twitter, 'listening' to their public messages as they discussed breaking stories, formulating their angles and swapping information.

However the Press Office did more than listen, President Obama's Press Secretary also engaged directly with journalists, correcting mistakes they tweeted and offering new information where warranted and appropriate.

Suddenly the US government was able to respond to news reports before they were reported, influencing and shaping stories through injecting facts and correcting misinterpretations.

Why did they do this? Correcting a journalist's facts before they publish is much more efficient then attempting to correct the facts in the public's eye after a journalist has published. You only need to influence a few people, rather than influence an entire nation.

Note that this approach wasn't effective for closing down legitimate stories (or even illegitimate ones), and the White House's Press Office did not use it in this way. The approach did, however, reduce the number of errors in stories, allowed better media preparation ahead of time (therefore allowing the government to research and provide more complete answers) and it saved public time and money - more efficient for citizens.

However this process only really targeted journalists. After a little longer, government organisations, again led by the US Press Office, began to also use social media to directly address misinformation and myths put about by media outlets.

In Australia this was seen most prominently recently in the Queensland floods, where the Queensland Police Service released a series of 'mythbuster' tweets and Facebook posts to counter misinformation being published in traditional media.

For example:

The same approach is now being undertaken by Sandi Logan, who tweets for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

The same approach is being used widely overseas during crisis or when particular topics are being discussed - or ignored - by the media.

I see this as a lasting change in the balance of power between media and government.

Media still has an important and significant role to report, analyse and dissect the events and issues of the day. It is still critical for investigating matters which organisations or individuals are sometimes reluctant to bring into the public eye.

However government now has a new and even more important role, keeping the media honest - ensuring that citizens are able to access factually accurate information that, sometimes, the media overlooks, gets wrong or even suppresses in order to create a sensational, controversial and, most importantly, commercial story.

Agencies resisting the use of social media channels may be doing themselves, the public and their Ministers, a disservice. By waiting passively for media to contact them, or reacting to media reports rather than proactively listening to journalists and communicating the facts, they may be allowing the level of misinformation in the community to spread unnecessarily.

This makes it harder and more expensive to correct mistaken impressions - particularly in emergencies - and increases the reputational risk for agencies and their Ministers.

Openness and transparency in government fostering accuracy in the media. Who would have thought?

1 comment:

  1. I would take highlight that there are risks with "correcting the record" such as this incident with DIAC:

    It doesn't seem proper to come to some organisation's online presence, call them a liar with an official government account and then try to bring a halt to the discussion.

    This isn't just about Government interacting online, a similar situation occurred on Reddit about gaming websites hiring social media spammers and their representives trying to correct the record:


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