You'd be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at one of the top trends of the global Twitterati . "Bawbag" is a word every Scot knows, and is used to refer to an idiot or the scrotum (frequently the same thing). It also came to be used to belittle Scotland's greatest enemy -the weather. Strong gale-force winds that even reached 165mph (275 kph) on Thursday were branded "Hurricane Bawbag" across social media as t-shirts appeared and aWikipedia page was penned.
The next day, on a train a daughter was trying to convince her mum that the storm had received such a distinct name. "Why would they call it that?" asked the mum. The daughter showed her video on her phone of a newscast where it referred to the storm as Hurricane Bawbag. "No, that's been dubbed over." Only when someone holds up the front page of The Metro [pictured] newspaper across the aisle does the mum finally believe it.
Many news outlets did not acknowledge the name in their coverage of the damage to buildings and power outages, but used it as a bit of side entertainment. But the key line spoken by the daughter on the train was this: "If everyone starts calling it that, you have to call it that."
In a similar vein, a recent TV satire in the UK, Black Mirror, recounted how a Kate-Middleton-esque princess was kidnapped and held for ransom. She would be released only if the British prime minister had sex with a pig on live television. The PM resisted at first, but when social media turned against his favour, he was forced by the public mood. In the satire, the "traditional" news media initially agrees not to report the kidnapping to protect the princess, until US TV networks expose the story and millions on Twitter demand to know why the Brits aren't joining in. Although all fake, you could possibly imagine similar young girls on trains saying, "If everyone starts calling for that, then you have to do that."
In both the Bawbag episode and the Black Mirror parody, news media is caught in the debate about who leads whom: do we follow social media, or does social media follow us? Despite the assurances of the young train girl, the fact that a "fact" appears on Twitter by hundreds of thousands does not, in fact, make it a fact.
As the Scotsman rightly pointed out the next day, had someone died in the gale winds, everything would have changed.The Hurricane Bawbag trend would have been silenced quickly on news of a fatality. Scots have a sense of humour but they're not inhuman. In that moment, the mood and spirit would have changed wuickly. Twitter would have followed the news, not vice versa. And that's essentially what happens - the mob speaks, until something changes and someone tweets, "Hey hold on, that's not right", and the masses swivel and pivot.
People believe the media should report what the people are talking about. When you ask the public what principle the media should follow, they say "tell the truth". The storm had no formal name - fact (well, it was discovered the next day it was named Friedhelm . The public on social media started calling it Hurricane Bawbag - also fact. So are both truths we must report?
If a rape case is being heard in court, where the victim's name would be rightly kept anonymous. But if Twitter had the name of the victim and was circulating it, what should the news media do? The victim's identity is a fact, but it is wrong (ethically and legally) to report the name of a victim of sexual violence, unless they themselves choose to waive anonymity. So if the media doesn't report the name, all those people who have seen the name on Twitter think the media isn't being truthful.
A spoof name for a storm is a relatively light scenario to debate, but there are serious cases daily where social media and the news media are governed by different laws, ethics, deadlines and practices. In the recent case of Mona El Tahawy, she tweeted that she had been arrested and beaten while writing about the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt. Within 20 minutes, as Owni recounts, #freemona was trending worldwide. In this case, the public pressure and exposure were successful. But there have been kidnapping cases where the media agrees not to reveal information which could jeopardise negotiations, and it is taken very seriously when they don't comply.
For #freemona, friends and colleagues made the decision within minutes of El Tahawy's original tweet that she had been arrested. Hyperactive news media make those same choices frequently, to determine news based on the tweets of the masses. How do we determine what the correct choices are?
If news is "what is new", then Twitter trends do fall into that category of sorts. But a Twitter trend doesn't guarantee newsworthiness and certainly not accuracy. Charlie Sheen's explosion of followers after his meltdown is newsworthy for its technology aspect and because a debate whether it was enabling his alleged psychological or addiction problems. But daily trends such as replacing film names with the word "muppet" are not news, no matter how much people get involved.
My own view is we in the news media must explain far more frequently why we include or exclude information. If we are professional reporters, editors, writers, designers, photographers and beyond, then we need people to understand the choices we make, from Bawbags to kidnappings.
In most cases we report A truth, which might not be an exact match with the truth you have seen or believe. The public - our readers, viewers, listeners - have become adept at questioning their media and the messages they create. That's a good thing. A discerning public is a more engaged public. But we have to better explain the craft of journalism so they can tell the difference between what we present as facts and what we present as opinion - and how we arrived at each.
Updated Date: Dec 12, 2011 09:44 AM