Two of my recent posts – Outrage Brigade and Screening out facts – have focused on the failure of our mainstream press to understand and embrace the opportunities that social media presents. One of the journalists I mentioned in
this analysis was the ABC’s Latika Bourke; I noted her propensity for ‘blocking’ Twitter followers. For the uninitiated, check out this link for an explanation of how Twitter works.
Bourke was recruited by the ABC from radio station 2UE in 2010, as their first Social Media Reporter. ABC’s director of news, Kate Torney, is quoted in this Mumbrella article announcing Bourke’s appointment:
“The ABC has a strong tradition of embracing and exploring new ways of communicating with our audience across a range of new and emerging platforms. This latest appointment continues that tradition.”
Bourke has successfully become one of the most followed journalists in Australia on Twitter. People obviously appreciate that she contributes political news directly to her Twitter feed. Bourke is not employed to speak on ABC radio, to appear on ABC TV, or to write articles for ABC’s news website. Her full time job is to be a member of the Canberra press gallery – supposedly investigating news – and then reporting it to a captive audience on social media. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it! And a great job! There’s just one catch. And I’m not sure if Bourke has worked out what this catch is yet. The key words in Torney’s statement are ‘communicating with our audience’. Communicating. Twitter is not a broadcast media. It is a social media. The difference is, when you throw comments, opinion and news out on the Twitter feed, you are joining a conversation. A two-way conversation. I’m sure this two-way conversation is all fun and games when you check your @Connect stream and see lots of lovely comments like ‘Good work Latika’, or ‘you’re doing a great job’. But what about when you get feedback which isn’t positive?
As of this moment, Bourke has 35,663 people following her @LatikaMBourke account and 7,123 following her @LatikaQT (question time) account. It’s very difficult to get to this number of followers without being ‘someone’. When I say ‘someone’, I mean a person who is in the public sphere, or by virtue of their profession, is given access to a public platform from which to be well known to the general public. A journalist is such a person. An ABC press gallery journalist even more so. To be paid to spend the day researching news, and then sharing this news on a social media platform is, I would have thought, a huge privilege. I would have thought that Bourke would take her role very seriously. Taking her role seriously would entail a certain respect for her audience, whose relationship with Bourke is based on the fact that she is employed by the ABC. While I have a personal Twitter account and I can use it to do and say whatever I like (within reason), it would seem to me that Bourke should always use hers to report news and interact with her audience as Latika Bourke, the ABC’s Social Media Reporter. This is how she is described on her Twitter profile, and this is what someone expects when they follow her account. We don’t follow her because we want to be her friend, or because she is witty and interesting, though she well may be that for all I know. We follow her because she is promoting herself as an ABC journalist. We follow her because she is paid by our public broadcaster to bring news to the ABC’s audience. This context is extremely important.
So what does Latika Bourke do when someone responds to one of her Tweets with what she perceives as negative feedback? From what I can tell, she immediately blocks this Twitter user from viewing her Tweets or following her.
To block someone on Twitter is quite an extreme reaction. It’s far more proactive than just ignoring someone – you physically have to go into the user’s account and select the ‘block’ button. Usually people block other Twitter users because they have been overly rude, offensive or even abusive. Blocking people in order to protect yourself from abuse is totally justifiable, and should be encouraged. I block for this same reason. I have no doubt that Bourke receives a lot of revolting abuse on Twitter due to the huge influence she has on this platform and I encourage her to block whenever she sees something that upsets or offends her. But my question for Bourke is – what exactly does upset and offend you? Because from the research I have done, Bourke is offended by anyone who doesn’t agree with her, and who chooses to tell her so through the two-way medium that is her tool of trade.
I have been hearing anecdotally on my Twitter feed that Bourke is a big blocker. I noticed a few people saying that they could no longer see her feed. Earlier this week, I Tweeted this:
I received a handful of responses from my followers saying that they have been blocked by Bourke, and that they couldn’t identify why they had been blocked as they were never abusive, offensive or rude. Keeping in mind the relatively small number of Twitter users who I can reach, a few responses represents quite a large number. No offending Tweets were identified. Again, I can vouch for the people who responded to me that they are not Troll-like, vicious or disgusting. Some of them said they thought they were blocked when they suggested to Bourke that she was biased towards the Liberal party. Any journalist, whatever their political ideology, will be called out for being biased if this is how they are perceived by their audience. The difference with social media is that the audience can now directly tell a journalist when they see bias. We can tell them if their facts are incorrect. We can tell them if we don’t like their work. If a journalist chooses to use a social media platform to reach their audience, they need to get used to feedback. Good, bad or indifferent. Journalists could even use this feedback to improve their work. You would hope that an ABC journalist would have a good reason to bar an audience member (a tax payer!) from seeing their news feed. A better reason than just not liking what they see.
Even more strange was the Tweet that someone sent me while I was writing this post. This Tweeter reported that she went to look at Bourke’s feed and, though she could not recall ever contacting Bourke directly, she found she had been blocked by her. She thinks she might have mentioned Bourke within a wider conversation, but she would never be abusive. I follow her and she is typically very polite. How widely is Bourke blocking if she is barring people who haven’t even contacted her directly?
A newspaper, radio or TV journalist can’t stop someone from reading, hearing or seeing their news items. An online journalist can’t stop particular users from commenting on their articles. Twitter gives journalists a unique way to garner feedback, but from Bourke’s reaction, it’s fair to say she does her best to ensure that those who provide feedback are not encouraged to do so again. Engagement is not only discouraged, it is physically blocked.
Bourke’s attitude is representative of most mainstream journalists’ perception of social media. They see it as a handy way to get more attention for their work, but they don’t appreciate feedback and will do their best to ignore or block anything they see which they don’t like. I don’t think Bourke really gets social media. It is very telling when the only mainstream journalist in the country who is dedicated to the medium is restricting her audience through blocking, rather than growing it by encouraging more engagement. Bourke is not alone in this epic social media fail. The entire industry is struggling to understand the opportunities of social media, and are doing their best to ignore or block it for as long as they possibly can, to the detriment of their profits.
So what do you think Latika Bourke thought of my Tweet requesting information from users she has blocked? I can’t tell you what she thought, because she didn’t respond. But she did block me. Enough said.