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Flash Mob ... Journalism

The news media devoted considerable coverage to “flash mobs” that communicated via texting or social networks in Philadelphia, London and other cities, as if this were a fresh development.

Mobs are new?  How about the Boston Massacre. That was 1770. Texting is new? OMG u kidding me. How long have we been texting via phones, tweeting on Tweeter, friending on Facebook? Five years?

But to the news media, the combination of social media with anything else is still a story.  Social media is not the novelty that mainstream media still think it is. So, how long will this last? It will last as long as the mainstream media think that social media is the story instead of the facts, such as the fact that many people involved in flash mobs had criminal records and used the opportunity for thievery.

This tendency to focus on the wrong thing reminds me of T ball, a game that is generally the first exposure most kids have to baseball. The ball is placed on a stationary “T” and batters swing until they hit it. Everything else is pretty much like the game of baseball. The batter runs to first base, the players in the field try to catch the ball and throw or tag out the runner.

But usually what happens at least at the start of the season is that any time a batter hits the ball, every kid in the field converges on the ball no matter where it is.  They think the goal is to possess the ball. So a winner emerges from this scrum and proudly holds the ball in the air.  Meanwhile the runner is safe.

This is what happens often in journalism. That is, reporters focus on the wrong goal. We could call this ”flash mob … journalism.” Except it isn’t new. It’s “pack journalism” updated.  Here is what I mean.

Forty years ago, David Halberstam was the doyen of politics writers. But he noticed a disturbing trend early in one campaign: other stories about speeches or events were similar to his stories.  At the end of every day, reporters following a candidate headed to the press tent to write their stories. They knew that Halberstam would pinpoint the best angle, so they waited until he started typing and then walked by and peeked at his story. One day Halberstam struck back. He let this happen, but when the others scurried to their typewriters to copy him, he pulled out the story he had apparently been writing and instead wrote his real story. He only had to do this once and the pack stopped following his lead.

There are many talented journalists whose insights affect actions and attitudes. If this were not so, there would be little demand for what I do for a living. But pack journalism remains a challenge and in fact it is exacerbated by the 24/7 news cycle that forces quick and unfortunately sometimes imitative reporting.

Here is what this means for you:

Trouble may hit you like a flash. Reporters now and then get wrong ideas in their heads. It happens to all of us. But never have reporters moved so swiftly to pursue a story than now because of the pressure in this 24/7 news world to get a story fast.  So they may take an idea that in the past they would have thoroughly researched before pursuing.  And they may not worry much about whether you are available to respond. This happened recently to a corporation when a newspaper columnist decided for himself what the company position was on a certain topic and wrote a story without contacting the company.  The company sent a strongly worded response to the columnist as well as to his editor and publisher not just rebutting but actually disproving the column. That sort of over-the-top response is now necessary if the media decide what you think without bothering to ask, or what the story is without supporting facts.

You need to master the mob before it grows. These days nobody can permit a wrong idea to flourish long because it will become institutionalized as if it were fact. When that happens, you will never change how people look at you on that issue. About that story cited above? The pressure to produce stories also leads some reporters to take a story initiated by another and make it their own with additional details.  So at the same time the company had to deal with this columnist, it had to deal with other reporters who saw the column and wanted to pursue the same story. At least they called. Once they heard all the facts, they did not do that story. But only because the company first said to them: “You can run that story, but you will be wrong.” That will grab the attention of a reporter simply because historically few corporations ever responded that way. It is a bold response. But there isn’t any choice now. If you don’t disabuse a reporter of a wrong idea, he’ll write that story and then you’ll have to deal with the mob that follows. You need to master the mob before it grows.

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