UK: Reporting On Social Media

Last Updated: 14 November 2011
Article by Duncan Lamont

Beware jumping into the deep end: Lessons from the Braehead one

The tent village of protesters that has sprung up around St Pauls Cathedral in London is a very modern one: not only do people sometimes go home for a shower and not come back (or do they?), read broadsheets on their tablets rather than the Socialist Worker and worship a variety of gods including David Icke (his insightful utterances plastered on numerous columns) but rather than riot or chant they blog, tweet and spread the word on Facebook.

But for a responsible journalist relying upon social networks can be a false friend as there remains no substitute for proper enquiry and an offer of a right of reply. This was demonstrated recently in a rather bizarre Facebook campaign to boycott a shopping centre in Scotland after an annoyed father claimed that security guards ("intimidating") and even the police stopped him from photographing his young daughter eating ice cream. The story caught the public's imagination, and certainly some editors got in on the act, but whilst the adrenaline still pumped things turned out to be rather more complicated than they many have at first appeared and whilst newspapers may be free to be partisan broadcasters have to bear in mind the Ofcom Code no matter how quickly a social media story seems to be breaking...

The mental health worker who had felt threatened after capturing images of his four year old daughter at an ice cream parlour in Braehead Shopping Centre was held up by himself online and then in print as a champion of civil liberties with tens of thousands registering their Facebook support for a boycott of the centre.

The photographer had taken an attractive image of his daughter and uploaded it on Facebook. Security, and then two police officers, became involved and talk of antiterrorism legislation ensued, subsequently followed with the Human Rights Act and perhaps whether pixies working for Father Christmas enjoy proper employment rights... the blogs buzzed.

But the story developed a nasty side leaving the photographer threatening (via The Sun) to sue the police who had been initially cautious (merely saying that they were investigating a complaint) but then, because the photographer chose to seek publicity for his account of events on Facebook at stick to his guns, taking the unusual step of making their findings public (so they too ended up online). The police found no basis to support the complaint made. Indeed, they raised the issue that he had been up to something which had caused "a very specific concern" to staff who were "right to raise their concern". Darkly it was said that the police involvement was not about taking photographs of a child and that the complainant "knows, or ought to know, why our officers spoke with him".

Of course, online was soon buzzing with what might have happened: He had been drinking, his flies had been undone, he had been staring at the chest of one of the Joe Delucci's ice cream girls. No evidence of any of this of course but if social media is exploited to mount a campaign then it seems almost inevitable that there will be a counter-campaign launched by someone else.

When the law is presented as an ass it can retaliate surprising quickly!

And journalists seeking to report on social media issues should be aware that they are entering into a quagmire: people put stuff online anonymously without the checks and balances that they might expect to experience when watching television where they still expect such stories to be reported fairly, accurately and with impartiality (or even the tabloids).

And our protestors outside St Pauls Cathedral, having apparently seen off the City of London and the Church of England which are on longer prepared to risk forcibly removing them, find that their dignity and the moral power of their arguments are being somewhat undermined by reports in the media and online that protestors have been using the inside of St Pauls Cathedral as a latrine, the "desecration of a very holy place" to the dismay of the liberal clerics and cleaning staff.

The conclusion to all of this it looks as though reporters of the 21st Century still need to be there, seeing what is actually happening and making their own minds up, and following industry Codes of Practice, rather than relying on social media, as much as they did in the 20th when the Cathedral witnessed reports of fairy tale happy marriages and destruction by the Luftwaffe.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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