The problem with Twitter
The difference between having views and having comments
Welcome to the third edition of Unmade, written (quickly) on Friday afternoon at sunny Sisters Beach, Tasmania.
There are 839 of us in the club now - thank you.
Next week I’ll probably stop counting off the editions quite so prominently, and I might start adding a week-on-week percentage growth number around sign-ups.
This afternoon’s writing soundtrack: On the week of its 46th birthday, Born To Run. Like I need an excuse. I can’t wait to get my hands on Steve Van Zandt’s new bio.
Today’s email is another experiment, as I get to understand this newsletter format.
When the subjects present themselves, there’ll be pieces of deeper analysis - like my second edition examination of Nine’s end-of-year numbers and why CEO Mike Sneesby’s honeymoon ended. I suspect that may be where I can hopefully offer readers the most value.
It’s interesting (to me, anyway) that since yesterday, that piece on Nine has already clocked up more than 2,000 views - twice the number who have signed up for the email so far, which suggest that the ability to share Substack content across other social platforms, is helping find a wider audience. That was one frustration I’ve had previously with writing for the email newsletter format - the difficulty in making it discoverable by those who are not already signed up.
And sometimes I might look at multiple subjects, or preview the week ahead. I’m keen to experiment with a few formats as I find my groove.
Not that I’m quite writing at full pelt yet. I’m still working through the distractions of starting a new thing. With help from a friend, I think I’ve nailed the challenge I mentioned in the last edition, of the unmade.media domain still needing www in front of it to redirect. Now it doesn’t. Hurrah.
And this morning I caught myself saying aloud “Jeepers!” as I read Gmail’s baffling instructions on how to change your primary email domain. I thought I’d solved it when I got TimB@unmade.media working as an alias of my main Gsuite domain, which I set up a while back as fifthday.biz, when I was first thinking about the Substack adventure. But now I’ve looked into it properly, I realise that if Unmade gets bigger down the track, that will be a massive pain in the backside.
And then it occured to me that, first and foremost, I’m here to write. So I cheerfully parked my Gmail woes until for the weekend.
Instead, I’ll try another format today, slightly more based on opinion rather than analysis. Sending this on a Friday afternoon is also an experiment. Either everyone will have checked out for the weekend, or will be ready to put their work to one side and read something. We’ll see.
And to keep it interesting, I’m going to see what can be turned round in a short time. I started writing properly at 1pm. I’ve promised myself to have this out of the door by 3. let’s see what I can do in two frantic hours. Excuse the inevitable typos.
For a while now, it’s been obvious that the relationship between journalism and social media is broken. Or, to be more specific, the relationship between journalists and Twitter.
Around 2009, Twitter felt like the journo’s best friend. I remember wondering whether I could go a week using it as my only source of stories - chasing leads from Tweets and crowd sourcing answers. It was a positive, helpful, intelligent, funny community. In some corners it still is. But mostly now, it isn’t. Mostly it’s toxic when it talks about mainstream journalists.
The casual reader might assume that most of Twitter hates journalists. There’s a weird reverse snobbery from some who see the verified “blue ticks” as some sort of elitist enemy. A fair few of those have the water droplet emoji instead. (It’s a reference to the grubby Murray Darling water buyback scheme, if you weren’t aware.) Some know them just as disparagingly as “the drips”.
Perhaps it’s the same instinct that saw the popular British Conservative politician Michael Gove declare in 2016: “People in this country have had enough of experts,” when he was challenged to cite those who believed that Brexit would be good for the country.
Many of those who Twitter offers a verified blue tick identity to, are journalists.
And the suspicion (and hostility) towards journalists has worsened over the last 18 months.
There’s been more than one reason.
Spillover from people hate watching pandemic press conferences, and misunderstanding the asking of tough questions as advocacy, has been a big one.
But there have also been those trying to use social media to capitalise on, and stoke mistrust of, media for their own commercial ends. Jordan Shanks, proprietor of the YouTube channel Friendly Jordies come to mind. His baiting of the mainstream media including News Corp and the Nine newspapers has helped deliver him monetised YouTube views and Patreon subscribers. Often it’s amounted to bullying of individual, relatively junior journalists. He often punches down.
Dishearteningly, there have also been journalists who seem to delight in provoking. I didn’t mean in pursuing a provocative thought from their published day job, but more in triggering a polarised, angry conversation, for reasons of personal branding. I can think of people employed as journalists from both the left and the right who do that. Their brand has, at least in part, become the fight they pick on Twitter with the other side. The names Osman and Sophie are triggering for plenty on Twitter.
With all that going on, it’s not surprising that the image of journalists has changed for those who follow the debates on social media. Why on earth would you think of the profession as independent, neutral players when you see all that going on?
That has become a huge problem for journalists who hope to come at the space from a place of good faith. They don’t get treated with that assumption, even when they deserve it. That’s why health minister Greg Hunt was emboldened to question the integrity of ABC News Breakfast’s Michael Rowland on air earlier this year.
Among those who have it worst are ABC journalists. And to a disproportionate amount, female ABC journalists. There’s poisonous commentary about how they conduct themselves on air, and vicious attacks whenever they join a conversation on Twitter.
It’s a problem for ABC management who have failed to make a staff social media policy work in the real world, and by all appearances failed to protect their staff who fall foul of the mob.
A few days ago Hamish McDonald hinted in an interview published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald that management’s failure to support him when he was under attack during his ill fated stint as host of Q&A was a key reason he left.
“I do think people would be surprised by the degree to which people who work in roles like that are left alone to navigate the trolling and the abuse that comes with it,” he told the Nine papers. “It was a surprise to me. It was overwhelming at times. It became something I could not manage on my own, and I could not get away from it.”
And on the other side, the organisation has struggled to set out a workable policy for its own journalists, or to get them to follow it. Recently it covered the costs of (the brilliant when sticking to the day job) Four Corners journalist Louise Milligan after she tweeted a defamatory claim about MP Andrew Laming. Her tweet was not directly related to Four Corners output. It would have been better for everyone if she had never tweeted it.
The problem though is how to make any policy workable, particularly for the publicly funded ABC and SBS where the journalists are rightly held to a higher standard of impartiality.
Often it isn’t about any one tweet on its own, but a cumulative effect.
I can think of a prominent Melbourne based ABC presenter whose understandably distressed tweets about life in lockdown have veered from authenticity into something verging on a political position thanks to sheer repetition.
The development which inspired my to write this post came in a thread on Twitter this morning from Alan Sunderland, the ABC’s former editorial director. It was as good a summary of the issue as I’ve come across. And the issues he set out apply to all journalists, not just those at the ABC.
It’s worth sharing most of the thread. He puts into words much better, what I’ve been groping my way towards.
“Journalists, like everyone else, are entitled to have personal views on things, and to express those views on social media,” he argued. “They are human, and that means they have an identity forged by experience, they have views and value.
“When those journalists go to work and undertake to report fairly and impartially on what is happening, they undertake to set those views aside and do their best to report the facts, follow the weight of evidence, and try their best not to let their own views skew things.
“So the idea is that journalist get to express their opinions in a personal capacity in Twitter and elsewhere, but in their work they set those aside and professionally, they get to be judged on their work and not on their personal life. In theory, no problem.
“But here is what happens in reality. As a news consumer, I follow many journalists on Twitter as they often link to their stories, seek information, engage in dialogue, and provide rich context and detail for their work. That's why I follow them.
“I expect their contributions on social media to be more personal and informal, and to reveal more about the person being the reporting. All good so far. Most of the people I follow deliver on that in spades But some use the freedom of social media to campaign aggressively.
“By campaigning aggressively, I mean they strongly and almost relentlessly argue the case for a particular perspective on an issue of the day. Their views, and their decisions about sharing information and content from others, is designed to ram home a strong view they have.”
“It gets to the point where, everyone I see their name pop up in my stream, I know what to expect. It will be another snide remark or a glowing endorsement or a selective drip of information, all designed to push a particular view on an issue in the news.
Then he gets to the central point. He doesn’t point the finger at the small subset of News Corp journalists who have recently made themselves more Twitter famous for questionable claims than they have for the journalism they do in the day job. But it’s hard not to assume that’s who he is talking about.
“Now, as a news consumer, that means that over time I get to know what to expect from that person. It also means that, over time, I also start to both look for that and see it in their journalism too. Now that I know what drives them, I look for that in their work as well.
“If they work for a news outlet where slanted and opinionated journalism is the norm, no problem.”
But what if they work, say, for the ABC, or publishers claiming independence as their brand?
“But if they work for a newsroom that claims its opinion and its news reporting are separated and you can trust its news reporting to follow the weight of evidence, it's a problem.
“This is where principle and practice clash. This is where what people can do and what people should do conflict. I think of it as the difference between having views and having comments.
“Of course everyone is 'allowed' to have views on issues. But if you choose to turn those views into public comments on an issue in the news, then your desire to be a commentator begins to conflict with your responsibility to be a reporter.
“It is a risk no matter how good your reporting is, and no matter how scrupulously you work to set aside your views when you fill your stories. So what's the lesson in all of this for serious public interest journalists?
“The lesson is that risky behaviour has consequences. The lesson is that you shouldn't campaign on the same issues you report on, lest it undermine your effectiveness as a journalist. The lesson is that less is more.
What Sunderland is not arguing is that journalists should stay off Twitter.
I find that if I’ve missed the 11am Gladys presser, my first port of call is Casey ‘The Curve’ Briggs on Twitter. His feed tends to be an extension of his ABC on air output. I know that I will find a graph on his feed within a few minutes. His brand is as a trustworthy numbers analyst, not an opinionated numbers guy.
Perhaps the central point is that for journalists who want to maintain their independence, Twitter should be the place where they extend the reporting and analysis done in their day job, not where they let off steam and share the views that the editor would not allow them to.
Everyone is better with an editor. Perhaps that’s the biggest danger of Twitter. There isn’t one.
I guess I just about hit my self-imposed deadline. It’ll be interesting to see what I learn about sending something like this on a Friday afternoon.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think on this topic. if you’re looking at this via email, you can hit reply, or email me at TimB@unmade.media. Or if you’re reading it online, Substack lets you comment below.
And please do encourage a friend to sign up. The Unmade project is in its early days. If it finds an audience, it will be thanks to you.
And if you’d like something to listen to, then do download this week’s Mumbrellacast. Wearing my editor-at-large hat I joined by former colleagues Damian Francis and Zanda Wilson to discuss Nine’s financial results, the fanastic new Qantas ad, and Ooh Media’s sale of Junkee.
Have a great weekend.
Proprietor - Unmade