Politicians, social media, and why journalists should pay attention

If you were living under a rock and missed it, U.S. President Barack Obama held a town hall ‘with the people’ via a Google+ hangout this week.

“Hunh,” said a colleague in the newsroom, “That’s neat.”

It’s more than neat – it’s a big shift we need to pay attention to.

As journalists, we have often functioned as ‘middle men’, the only way the public can access politicians.

On Monday evening, when Obama ‘hung out’ with five “lucky people.”

And he answered a question with breaking news – the kind traditionally reserved for media releases and press conferences. As The CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos blogged, the president confirmed U.S. drone strikes along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. You can watch that segment of the hour-long hang out here:

Social media is cutting out the middle man.

This is a not to be a cause for alarm, it serves as a reminder that we need to think of our role in covering politics.

In Canada, it’s an understatement to say that Treasury Board President Tony Clement has been extremely active on Twitter.  (Sometimes getting himself into hot water, in January he apologized for calling a teen a ‘jackass’ in a Tweet).

Next week in Ottawa, Clement will talk to journalists, public relations folks (and anyone who buys a ticket) what the web 2.0 guidelines are for Canada’s public servants, open government and social media.

I’m not against politicians embracing social media. I wish more would, frankly.

But journalists also need to think about our role – which remains the same as it always did: to look through the spin, get off the message track, and tell the story. To provide analysis and context for our audience.

To be thought-provoking in an age of social media political spoon feeding.

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