“Graffiti crimes shall be written upon your walls.
Well I shall spray them so bold and so tall.
Just you wait ’til you read this one.”
- Misex, 1979
What distinguishes “electronic graffiti”, as a besieged prime minister characterised social media, from the “real” journalism of the mainstream? That’s easy. One is full of uninformed opinion, unsourced speculation and lazy trolling. The other is to be found on Twitter.
Unfair, I know. But it’s becoming increasingly hard to see why the “official” media should continue to hold any special place in the national conversation when so much of its content does not hold a torch to the best analysis of the “amateurs” online.
Yes, Twitter has more than its share of trolls, single-issue nutters and people suffering from a high opinion-to-insight ratio. There are party-paid provocateurs, ranting residents of la-la-land and rusted-on partisans whose utterances you can see coming a mile off.
But if you are discerning and can bother assembling a list, you can find in social media insights and opinions from people who stand apart from the red team-blue team bifurcated universe of group think that the media manufactures to make its job easier.
Take the Queensland election. The almost universal take in the mainstream media ahead of the poll was that while Premier Campbell Newman was in trouble, the LNP would almost certainly squeeze back in with a vastly reduced majority.
Much of this ‘analysis’ was boilerplate copy written around opinion polling. With actual old-fashioned reporting on the ground now seen as a luxury by many news organisations, it is just easier (and cheaper) to sit in Canberra or Sydney rewriting the wires.
In the single newspaper town of Brisbane, the Courier Mail did what News Corporation publications seem to deem to be journalism these days – it shamelessly editorialised, dressed up opinion and spin as fact and generally treated its readership like morons.
One didn’t need to read the paper because its uniformly partisan front pages were indistinguishable from the LNP’s election bunting. In fact, on polling day, the paper’s splash was used as party propaganda.
With the Murdoch media singing from its dog-eared Tory hymn book and much of the rest writing to a poll-driven template (in essence not telling us anything we didn’t already know), it proved more enlightening for some to turn to social media.
So, over in graffiti town, there were hundreds of voices offering insights from ground level – old-hand and now retired professionals (like Margo Kingston), Queensland academics like Mark Bahnisch and many more citizen journalists.
Margo, a force of nature and never a journalist to wear her heart anywhere but on her sleeve, was one of the few to call the result correctly. Others, like Dave Donovan of the Independent Australia website, did dogged old school on-the-ground reporting right up to polling day, including confronting a hapless Gold Coast MP who responded with a jig.
Of course, not everything in the mainstream media was lazy and predictable. There are quality writers at all the major publications, including The Australian. The point is, though, that it is neither fair nor accurate to write off social media as just knee-jerk and misinformed opinion.
In any case, most mainstream journalists are on Twitter anyway, as are most “official” sources. For my day job, my own morning read-in list takes in posts by prominent economic bloggers, consultants, academics, think tanks, regulators, fund managers and organisations like the World Bank.
But I also read the posts of many, many people with no particular “status” (in the old school mediated world) but who just have interesting things to say. Frequently, the insights are richer and more original than anything found in the mainstream.
Yet, on the radio each morning, we still hear a ritual and anachronistic rundown of ‘what the papers are saying’, as if we are still living in a pre-disintermediated era where the only valid voices are those who happen to be employed by a press baron. That the old school media so often get it wrong or talk to each other without reference to social media only makes this habit more perplexing.
Indeed, it’s partly this refusal of the old political-media complex to countenance the fact that the world has changed – that people are speaking among themselves irrespective of the ‘official’ record – that explains the sense of irrelevancy around the media and the loss of faith in political institutions.
People don’t want to be talked down to or spun to. They don’t want someone telling them what the story is. They hate being characterised as some lumpen mass. They want to share their experiences and opinions with others directly. And out of that can come new ways of thinking – about politics, about economics, about media and how we can live together in a world that is changing much more quickly than established voices realise.
- Tim Dunlop, The Drum – ‘Captain’s Pick Betrays a Weakened Leader
- Jenna Price – SMH – ‘Message to Digital Dinosaurs’
- Collette Snowdon, The Conversation – ‘Don’t Dismiss Social Media’