‘Bashtags’ against journalists

“Damn you, media”. “Journalists are liars”. “You suck!”.

These are some of the criticisms against the mainstream media that all too often appear on social media today. They may be offensive, rude, libellous, candid or even sensible, but they all seem to suggest one thing: there is a problem with the media and journalists today.

The ‘problem’ is in fact not new at all. It is as old as the media itself. It consists a host of complex issues that touches on credibility and transparency of the media as well as responsibility of journalists, matters that have been subjects of research in journalism studies for many years.

Indeed in journalism studies today, the spotlight is slowly moving to media criticism online. Scholars studying media accountability are interested in understanding how citizens can be integrated into different ways of watchdogging the media through criticism of media organisations on blogs, Twitter or Facebook.

All too often—and in mostly crude ways on social media—citizens attempt to raise issues to do with unethical practices by journalists, factual errors on news media, newsroom corruption, political bias, misrepresentation of groups, etc. They are matters that are supposed to be addressed through media accountability mechanisms such as press councils, news ombudsman or code of ethics for the journalism profession. The traditional instruments of keeping journalists accountable are however now being seen as ineffective.

In the attempt to understand how citizens’ watchdog role could be formalised or utilised, there are a host of challenges which researchers today seek to address. Among them are two, which inform the discourse in media accountability research.

Firstly, it has been difficult to establish whether the criticisms of the traditional media on blogs, Twitter or Facebook affect journalists at all. In fact, the big question in media accountability studies today is whether citizen criticism online transforms the journalism practice. Journalists do not seem to agree they are influenced by tweets or Facebook posts to be ethical or to report fairly, at least going by surveys on European journalists conducted by MediaAcT (Media Accountability and Transparency) researchers. (MediaAct, a project funded by the European Commission, was a comparative study of media systems in 12 European countries between 2010 and 2013). Even though journalists could deny influence from citizens, it could also be argued that they cannot anyway be expected to be sincere about “external forces”. They have a professional ‘territory’ to protect!

Secondly, it has not been that easy for researchers to study media criticism. Citizen criticisms on news websites, blogs, Twitter or Facebook are so diverse. They range from genuine, but amateurish analysis of the news media, to trolls and comments that seek to propagate political or commercial interests. Apart from the diversity of criticisms, there is the complex and arduous process of collecting data on media criticisms as well as tracking media-critical citizens as possible subjects of research. However, blogs have proved to be the better platforms in research into media criticism even though they are not always reliable as their content is inconsistent and some often have a short life.

In his 2006 book, Watching the Watchdog, Stephen Cooper wrote that American blogs were nearing “maturity” at the time and could collectively be considered a possible “social institution” that could be useful in keeping media in check. However, over the past few years, media criticism has shifted to micro-blogging platforms, mostly Facebook and Twitter.

Media accountability scholars interested in media criticism can therefore no longer ignore social media. Twitter, in particular, has become an interesting platform for media criticism. Although previously many users could tweet critical views about individuals and organisations, they were isolated and proved difficult for researchers to collect for specific studies. The hashtag changed that.

Twitter hashtags tell us a lot about a key topic of conversation by a group of audiences online, globally or at a specific geographical area. The hashtag drives users to consistently address the subject of the hashtag and these comments are easily searchable and tracked on Twittersphere.

There have been popular Twitter hashtags that have attracted citizens to criticise media organisations or journalists. One of the media-critical hashtags that has trended worldwide a few times is #SomeoneTellCNN, which has been used to criticise CNN over stories deemed to portray Africa in bad light. #SomeoneTellCNN was trending for a few days in July after CNN broadcast a news story claiming US President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya at the time was likely to be dangerous as the country was a “terror hotbed”.

Another recent example is #PrayforParis, which was initially used by Twitter users to share messages of support for the victims of a terror attack in France on November 13. To protest against the western media organisations’ interest in the Paris attacks over other terrorist killings around the world, some Twitter users started #PrayfortheWorld, which equally became popular. The BBC News Online reported that social media users were unhappy with the bias against other terror victims in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Kenya and Nigeria.

With such examples, it could be interesting to research the content of media criticisms against media organisations and perhaps analyse the competence of Twitter users in addressing critical issues as regards journalism practice. Indeed, this is an opportunity researchers in media accountability studies may need to consider in broadening the understanding of citizen participation in media watchdogging.

There are of course numerous studies about Twitter and the use of the hashtag in certain areas of the journalism field such as audience studies. The criticism of organisations has also been studied in the marketing field. In particular, several studies so far published in various marketing journals are proving interesting in addressing the use of the term “bashtag”.

‘Bashtag’ is generally used to describe scathing attack of an individual or organisation on Twitter. Somehow ‘bashtag’ has come to be associated with the criticism of McDonald through the hashtag #McDStories, following its marketing campaign for positive comments from its customers. The term seems to have became popular after news organisations like Forbes used the “bashtag” to refer to critical tweets that were meant to detract MacDonald’s marketing campaign through another hashtag #McDHorrorStories.

Researchers in media accountability studies therefore could benefit from the growing Twitter studies in various disciplines. But even with ease of collecting tweets that consistently address a specific issue in journalism practice, there will still remain the complex issue of linking citizen criticism online to viable means of keeping the media accountable today.

This article was first posted on NODE blog.

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