Snacking on rumour, feeding on facts

Satisfying audience need

<a href="" target="_new">Image by Ed Yourdon</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.</a>
Image by Ed Yourdon released via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0.

“Facts aren’t enough, I want rumour, too,” a quote from a blogger in Ukraine at the end of a workshop about how to use social networking for newsgathering.

The good news for mainstream media is that the social networking audience still wants facts, and this is where traditional journalism comes in.

However, those producing the facts need to take note of this changing audience behaviour and think differently about how they create and disseminate those facts.

News alerts or news reminders

When a big story breaks, the news is often out first on social networking platforms.

Having spent my career as a journalist and manager in print, radio, TV and online, the search for two independent sources to verify a story was a large part of my day.

Now, I am facing up to the fact that the many in the audience would rather have a sniff around the story much earlier in its development, rather than wait for the information to be checked, verified, packaged and presented via the traditional media route.

Sure, they still want to know what exactly happened, but in the meantime they want the drip drip drip of gossip and rumour.

When you think about it, this behaviour is not a lot different from the chat that goes on in the coffee shop, bus queue, laundrette and bar – in fact anywhere where people natter.

Most of the time they are dealing in rumour and gossip, but when they get home they switch on the radio or TV, log on or open the newspaper in their search for facts. They want to know what’s actually happened.

Getting in on the act

So this is not new behaviour, but because it’s been happening in the social networking space some media types have backed off and tried to distance themselves taking an us-and-them approach.

However, in some areas traditional media has woken up to this and is responding in a way that is accepting that changing audience behaviour could be an opportunity rather than a threat.

BBC News Online’s sports site and its daily football gossip pages (football in the English sense of the word with a round ball) are an example of how a broadcaster has adapted.

Each day a journalist at BBC News Online’s sports team sifts through the most popular websites and newspapers and copies the stories being put out by others.

There is no need to verify the information because all they are doing is reporting what others are saying. In this case the BBC providing a signpost in order to point the way to an interesting piece of information that they have not yet included in their output, probably because they haven’t checked it out.

Or they may have checked it out, found it is wrong and decided not to use it themselves but have realised that the rumour is capturing the imagination of the audience and stimulating debate and therefore should be included in the gossip section.

They add links to the sites making the claims, many of them tabloids read by the BBC audience. Neat solution; best of both worlds.

The result is an extremely popular list of rumours that may be totally rubbish, but make interesting pub and coffee shop conversations none-the-less, and the fans love it.

They are able to sense what is true and make believe, but they want to read both and make their own minds up.

And the same is true with Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms.

Clearly you are not expected to believe all you read, but it is there and, although social networking will be dealing in rumour and gossip, it will also be dealing in facts and smart journalists will see this as an early heads up on breaking or potential news stories.

It’s about realising the audience is not stupid and is able to make up its own mind. And an element of changing audience behaviour appears to be one of being happy to snack on rumour, but with an underlying need to feed on fact.

The challenge for traditional media

So, what does this mean for traditional, mainstream media? Does it need to change?

Well yes, it needs to be aware of the changing audience behaviour and the new and exciting ways of newsgathering via social networking, but, in terms of change, it’s important it keeps doing what it does best; dealing in sourced, verified, attributed facts that inform the public debate.

The platforms and conduits may have changed, but the need for solid, reliable, sourced and ethical journalism is still evident.

And that is where traditional media should focus. It should be doing what it should have always have been doing – unearthing facts that are verified, sourced, attributed and substantiated – and feeding those to the social networking space.

However, those facts may have to be presented differently.

Perhaps there will not always be the need for a heavily-produced and packaged piece of audio or video, or a complex web page or newspaper special section.

Perhaps the way to feed the social network debate is to cut up the content into facts sent out in tweet-sized sentences or in RSS feeds that can stimulate debate in the social network space and offer links so that debate can flow back to the host news organisation, be intercepted, and then considered for inclusion in order to broaden perspectives and inject a flavour of the audience into the output.

Most if not all traditional media organisations have Facebook pages. Most seed these pages with RSS feeds of the headline, summary and a thumbnail and allow the audience that prefers to consume its news in this space to interact.

Recently, on CNN’s Facebook page, there were 2,568 comments on one story. What’s interesting is that in order to inform that debate the users will have to click on the headline to return to CNN to get the facts they need for that discussion. Viral marketing, 360 audience engagement.

Dealing in unsubstantiated rumour is not new. Gossip magazines and tabloids have feasted at this table for years. The online, social networking environment has just extended this.

How traditional media responds to this is key. If it remains aloof and removed it will fail; if it dives in and gets involved it could benefit.

And, as my Ukrainian friend said as he browsed the latest tweets on his handheld, “I still return to BBC News Online several times a day to check what has really happened.”

He is snacking on rumour but feasting on fact. And as long as he and many others do, there is still an important role for traditional, mainstream media.

The platforms, conduits and opportunity may have changed, but the need for solid, reliable, sourced and ethical journalism is still evident.

David Brewer
The author of this piece, David Brewer, is the founder and editor of Media Helping Media. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast, and online. He was the managing editor of BBC News Online when the site launched, the managing editor of International EMEA setting out the editorial proposition, hiring staff and overseeing the launch, the managing editor for the launch of CNN Arabic in Dubai, and a launch consultant for Al Jazeera English in Qatar. He has spent many years delivering journalism training worldwide, mainly in transition and post-conflict countries. He is currently mentoring journalists and editors of refugee and exiled media and helping train journalists in countries where the media is still developing.