Social media commentator Lauren Papworth called it corporate karma. “Transparency and accountability aren’t just nice to haves they are part of everyday reality,” she said. But she was on less certain ground to hail Seven’s defeat as the end of “news gathering in its traditional form”. Seven may be more careful in future but in their desperate battle for ratings with Nine, will still most likely stop at nothing for a story. They will remain “you bastards”.
After I heard about Seven 7’s social media blunder today, I sent out an email to my journalists. I gave them a link to Mumbrella’s story and told them this: “Channel Seven are in the poo after deleting comments from their Facebook page. Lesson for us: Never delete a user comment from Facebook (or any social media) just because it is critical of us or our actions. Hiding criticism only makes matters worse – and it becomes the story. Instead, we should address any criticism directly. There is only two good reasons to delete Facebook comments: they are either defamatory or are offensive to community standards (if in doubt, let me know).”
Later on, I thought of two more reasons to delete comments. Firstly, if there is an obvious unintentionally blunder on your own copy found immediately (call it the five second rule). Secondly if the comment is spam. There are other rules out there, but I stand by what I wrote to my people: don’t hide criticism. Criticism is a central plank of media behaviour but everyone notices the industry has a glass jaw when the tables are turned.
Channel Seven had the tables turned in a big way yesterday. Their Seven News Sydney Facebook page received a comment from Linda Goldspink-Lord. Goldspink-Lord announced herself as the mother of Molly Lord who was killed in an accident last week. Molly was just 13 when she came off a quad bike in Kembla Grange, NSW. Most of the press called a “freak accident”, but as someone who has ridden on these things, I know it could easily happen.
Goldspink-Lord said Channel Seven found out very early on about the accident and their reporter was on the scene while the girl was still laid out on the ground. While the reporter was doing his job, he overstepped when he went around the grounds – apparently without permission – looking for an angle. Then their helicopter flew overhead and grabbed pictures of Goldspink-Lord sitting with her dead daughter which it aired before she had time to notify relatives. Goldspink-Lord was incensed. Channel Seven didn’t care – they had great footage. But they were not prepared for Goldspink-Lord’s public rebuke. “Channel 7 you are a disgrace and what should have been a private moment between a mother and get (sic) daughter was exploited for the sake of a story. You Bastards.”
Channel Seven may not have liked it but its Facebook audience lapped it up. The comment was liked by 32,000 people. There were almost two thousand comments as the story span out of Channel Seven’s control. Then they deleted the comment. It was too late, many had saved it for posterity and other media were onto the story. On every other post on Seven News Sydney’s Facebook page, the conversation was hijacked by those pointing out their sordid role in the Goldspink-Lord business.
At 11am today, Seven admitted defeat. Chris Willis, Director of News, 7 Sydney issued a statement. It read: “Ms Goldspink-Lord’s comments were removed from our site in error. We apologise for that. Taking into account her understandable distress over the coverage of Molly’s death, I did ask for the footage to be taken down. That happened but unfortunately her remarks were deleted as well. They are now being restored to our Facebook page. I would also like to stress that we have re-examined our reports into Molly’s tragic death and can find no video showing Ms Goldspink-Lord hugging her daughter. We were not the only television station to visit the family’s property. Our reporter did go to the house but left immediately he was told the family wished to make no comment. Our reporters and camera crews know that grieving families have to be approached with sensitivity and compassion.”
The behaviour of these juggernauts is one reason why the Australian public’s trust in the media is the lowest in the developed world. It is also why trust is the number one issue facing the industry. Forging trust, particularly in social media where it is second nature, is critical to ongoing health. There is nothing substantial wrong in news gathering in its traditional form (other than the fact there is not enough people to cover all of the news that needs covering). It is dealing with the commercial pressures that dictate the selection and presentation and distortion of that news where the major problems lie. That is where an inter-active audience can be of most help. Social media can shame wrongdoers of journalism – and we shouldn’t flinch from it. But it remains a long way from replacing it.