BROADCAST news organisations have had it easy for a long time. They had a unique selling point: if you want to know what’s happening in the world right now, listen to us or watch us. It’s a model that changed the world: it would be impossible for Franklin Roosevelt to be US president now if he had to campaign from a wheelchair.
The influence of broadcast news is such that great care and attention go into how politicians look and sound. But it’s under threat, and the menace is not just cool and trendy, it’s easy to use, free and, worst of all, quick.
In the world of broadcast news, speed is everything. Broadcasters in radio and TV have very clear procedures that can get breaking news on the air in about a minute. Twitter is faster. It doesn’t take long to type 140 characters. And once information is out, it’s free. This makes breaking news much harder to cover. Broadcasters are still able to dominate the big set-piece news events (the opening of Parliament, party conferences, etc), and Twitter becomes a complement to the coverage of those events. The Twitterati are talking about the speech on Twitter — but they’re watching and listening to it on TV and radio.
Where broadcasters could really feel the threat of Twitter is in the unexpected event. A classic case was the defacing of The Spear image at the Goodman Gallery. No one saw that coming and most journalists were cooped up in the South Gauteng High Court 5km away. On-air presenters were faced with a terrible dilemma. Normally they would wait for their newsroom to confirm an event before even mentioning it. But in this case they could see the Twittersphere explode with fact, comment and, crucially, pictures of the defaced picture. For perhaps the first time in our news-broadcasting history, radio and TV stations were scooped.
Deaths of prominent people are a particular challenge for broadcasters. In the cases of former public service minister Roy Padayachie and Kader Asmal, people who knew them or their families tweeted the news, leading to particularly frantic scrambles in broadcast newsrooms. But in those cases, the facts of the deaths became accepted as fact only once broadcast news organisations put them on the air.
This points to a change in the role of broadcasters. To an extent, their job will be to confirm or interrogate a claim made on Twitter, which doesn’t just deal in facts but also in rumour and conjecture. Twitter reports of the death of a former president of South Africa were found to have been greatly exaggerated. The broadcasters’ role was confirming the claims were false.
What gives the broadcasters strength here is their brands and their credibility. Because there are very real consequences if you go on radio or TV and say a fact is a fact when it is not, there is a verification process, a set of rules, to follow to ensure that only the truth is broadcast.
Twitter does not have this, it’s a group of disparate individuals and many of them, such as the Twitterati politicians, have their own agendas. You can trust Twitter only as far as you can trust the individual controlling the thumbs on the phone’s keyboard.
But it is this that will make it such a fascinating news tool in the future.
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