Taking the Sheen off social media

By shamelessly carrying social media content as news, the traditional media are quickly losing their only viable value – and revenue – proposition in the new digital environment.

Having watched the mainstream news media's formative fumbles with, and now slobbering embrace of, social media I'm dismayed by the overwhelmingly unimpressive impact that Web2.0 technologies seem to be having on the quality of news output – mostly TV and radio – broadcast across Australia.

Fuzzy photos, shaky footage and muffled, anonymous commentary do little to provide worthwhile explanation or insight on any given news story. Aside from that, watching Mal Walden types asking you to Tweet him is as grisly as seeing your grannie give a karaoke rendition of 50-Cent's 'In Da Club'.

I mean, would "old media" consumers regularly tolerate front page headlines that merely documented a news outlet's readership? How about radio or TV lead stories proclaiming that a hundred thousand people grunted, gasped or guffawed in response to an inter-song anecdote given at a rock festival? What if news desks merely pumped out de facto press releases – with shrinking staff resources, some do – yet poorly composed and promptly compressed into 140-character mouth-offs?

Unfortunately, seduced by technologies no more revolutionary in their own technical context than the advent of pagers, email or SMS messages, news organisations appear to be further suppressing their much-vaunted truffling instincts, in favour of barrell-bottom infotainment.

Lost boy Sheen's publicist (though not psychiatrist) and the owners of the Guinness Book of Records must be the only ones raising a stout salute to world-spanning news that this year's biggest Charlie has a record number of Twitter followers. Journalists: Why are you wasting time building profile and publicity for these brands – Sheen, Twitter and Guinness? I thought you were the legendary PR watchdogs? As they say in the patois of PDAs, "WTF?".

One of the tenets of effective corporate social media engagement is that you have to add value, not volume. But what we're often getting on TV is an increasing number of easy-access, celebrity fill stories and PR padding – all of it creating more channel noise, rather than enlightening clarity.

I find allies to my concerns over in the US, and the quizzical looks come not from other proselytising PRs, but from newspaper journalists.

A 2008 Brodeur and Marketwire survey – comprising 451 interviews of 90 reporters across a variety of news sections – shares my furrowed-brow editorial beat. The study concludes: "While journalists believe that social media has had a positive impact on the immediacy and diversity of news [I'd challenge diversity as they all seem to share the same grainy social media materials] they believe it has negatively influenced the quality and accuracy of reporting in their field."

Late last year in Florida, twenty-three scribes at the Miami Herald petitioned management because they believed their paper was becoming trivialised by social media input. They were specifically weirded out by the apparent editorial validation of vapid contributions from such unverified experts as "Afro-Cheez", "Karl B Gordon Geck" and "Neko-do" whose off-article topic comments relating to their driving, eating and sleeping status were freely published alongside attempts to communicate 'real' news.

Again. WTF?!

News media seems to be faltering in its role as arbiter and filter; it spent years blocking PR bumf so why does it not attack social media spin and spittle with similar zeal? Just because it's big on Twitter or YouTube doesn't make it – OMG – of actual significance. It strikes me as being a bit like the old graffiti scrawl: "Eat shit – ten billion flies can't be wrong!"

Seriously, news media are failing to assert their expertise in assessing and documenting what constitutes essential and valuable audience information. Yet that could be "old media's" only viable value – and revenue – proposition in this whole new digital environment. While pandering to a more inane content game, news broadcasters appear to be missing a blessed opportunity to explain the context to legitimate news stories in deeper, more meaningful ways. Ways that actually enhance their own credibility with audiences who can find and access footage online, without "old media" help.

Passing on consumer-generated material makes them mere middlemen. And there are better, newer more dynamic middlemen on the rise. Citizen news sites such as CNN's i-Report and the Korean powerhouse OhMyNews are stealing a march as news content aggregators and providers.

With the surge in social media, the nexus of the challenge for news makers is not to drown us in a sea of twee, twittering twaddle and nonsense – 'Addled addict proclaims he's a winner'; 'Ex-sportsman beds cougar in Brighton' – but to assert their value. They must reclaim their credibility by, in US online journalist Matt Thompson's words, "helping us make sense of what's happening in our world."

The social media technologies are more than capable of helping do exactly that. The questions is, does mass media think there's more ad dollar value in re-churning out more and more stuff and nonsense?

Gerry McCusker is the author of the business book Public Relations Disasters, a case study anthology of inept PR. Gerry is also the owner of online reputation management consultancy Engage ORM .

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