Media: How tweets make twits of journalists

Twitter can be used for orchestrated campaigns by groups that want to get their point across. Photo / Supplied
Twitter can be used for orchestrated campaigns by groups that want to get their point across. Photo / Supplied

Two Canterbury University academics are warning about the dangers of accepting that social media reflects public opinion and say traditional journalists need to be careful.

The trend was illustrated on TVNZ's least-commercial current affairs show Q&A on Sunday when interviewer Guyon Espiner told Labour leader Phil Goff that Twitter users were demanding he spell out policy.

But fascination with social media is creeping into all media as growing legions of readers, listeners and viewers spend more time online.

Blogs are long established, but increasingly tweets are providing short, sharp news comments - especially for online media.

Jim Tully, head of the school of Social and Political Sciences at Canterbury University, says that there are dangers. Anonymous viewpoints could be emanating from political parties or organised supporters and there was an issue over how social media could be manipulated.

It is important that journalists become more vigilant, says Tully.

Canterbury University Communications and Media senior lecturer Donald Matheson has studied the issue and says journalists need to be more cautious and literate about social media.

"I've come across journalists who say the good thing about social media is that it gives you a barometer on public opinion.

"That's a really dangerous assumption to make. It's the people who care most or have a fixed opinion who tweet."

There's a similar argument about the validity of instant polls where respondents are people who are prepared to pay to take part.

"Another factor with social media is people know if they make a good comment it might get into traditional media.

"Often comments are off the cuff and provide a dramatic quote that is not necessarily representative. There is an issue with orchestrated campaigns as happened with listeners on talk radio.

"It will be happening with social media as debates in blogs move to micro-blogging on Twitter," he says.


Twitterers - including commercial campaigners - are desperate to win the much bigger reach of old media.

Matheson points out that social media followers are unforgiving if they find out that opinions are phony or manipulated, and traditional media risk being tarred if they unwittingly buy into them.

TV3's Campbell Live has featured twittered responses, and TV3 head of news and current affairs, Mark Jennings, acknowledges the issues, saying he is keeping a close watch on the trend.

Richard Harman of independent production company Front Page produces TV3's top-end current affairs programme The Nation and is sceptical about the increasing ties to social media.

The Nation tried links to bloggers but found the views and comments were inferior and the blogging community largely wrote for a small group that focused on one another.

Not so TVNZ's current affairs show Q&A which - like The Nation - is 100 per cent funded by taxpayers through New Zealand On Air. In last week's show Espiner performed his usual searching style in an interview with Goff and (fairly) asked him specific questions about policy.

But he linked this to the need for instant feedback from tweeters and emailers.

"I'm already getting feedback in my ear from the producer saying people are twittering and emailing us at the moment saying, 'Hey, we want to know what Labour's going to do'.

"This is what our viewers are saying. Can you give them an answer, Mr Goff?"

What is the attitude of the state broadcaster linking to social media?

John Gillespie, TVNZ editor of current affairs, says the same editorial constraints apply as for the rest of Q&A.

"The producer vets the material as it comes in. We aim for balance and fairness as we do for all news and current affairs - but we reflect the wave of social media that comes in, we do not create it.

"If 90 per cent of views are negative, we do not pretend otherwise. We would expect the 'negativity' of feedback to even out over time as the programme moves through a balanced cross-section of the political spectrum," Gillespie says.


Former Baldwin Boyle shareholder Greg Shand doffs his cap to commercial success of social media promotional campaigns.

But success selling KFC chicken burgers does not translate to reputation-based public relations, a discipline that has remained stable in the online era.

Shand was political editor at the Herald in the Muldoon era and and has been with Baldwin Boyle since the mid 1980s, taking key roles with big clients Singapore Airlines and Fonterra. One change during that period was the extension of the industry recruiting young communications and arts graduates rather being focused on hiring former journalists.

He is ambivalent. "A lot of the kids are very talented. But the big disadvantage is that they have not worked in media. They don't understand how it works," he says.

Shand says that gap in knowledge about the pressures facing media is part of the fractious relationship between the growing number of public relations officials and the diminishing number of journalists.

"There is a common refrain among media people I know that the majority of PR is trying to sell something."

But Shand says he is not in that game. Reputation or integrity PR has a lot more at stake than selling a new hamburger and is not about spin, he says.

The net clearly has an important role. "There is a free market of comment and if a company tries to manipulate it will come off second best.

"You need to engage and have a point of view and you cannot allow uninformed opinions to roam around the internet," Shand says.


Reading Cinemas - which owns the Botany Town Centre cinema complex - is looking at expanding its complex in Wellington's Courtenay Place.

The United States listed company held its annual meeting recently and this week said it had signed a letter of intent and was negotiating lease documentation with a tenant for the development of phase two of the property.

It has received informal assurances as to funding availability, but a Reading spokesman says there is no assurance that the transaction will be completed.


I'm often amused by people who give their views online and believe that they are outside the normal rules of publishing and journalism.

Some believe (wrongly) that the rules of defamation and court orders do not apply to the internet.

Others believe they can take grand views from under the cloak of anonymity because they are so inherently trustworthy that they are beyond scrutiny for conflicts of interest or commercial relationships.

The blogger No Right Turn - aka Idiot Savant - is a case in point.

He produces intelligent well-researched comment from a left-wing standpoint, but there is no opportunity to respond and he guards his identity closely.

How do I know that this blog is not being published from a backroom of the Labour Party Research Unit or in the EPMU?

Shouldn't bloggers put their reputation on the line? Up-front blogger Bomber Bradbury said some bloggers chose anonymity because of the vitriol in responses on the internet, but there was a trend toward being open about their identities for online discussions.

He said the main bloggers talked to each other and knew who the anonymous bloggers were - but chose not to identify them. Such behaviour seems more akin to lily-livered secret critics than citizen journalists wanting to be taken seriously in an election year.

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan has been a business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s.

Read more by John Drinnan

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