Online and in the loop: How social media is changing politics and political reporting

Moderator Andrew Potter, David Reevely, Nick Taylor-Vaisey and Joanna Smith.
Moderator Andrew Potter, David Reevely, Nick Taylor-Vaisey and Joanna Smith.

Sneezing in space, putting a snowplough on the mayor’s car, and the appropriate level of snark in a tweet were up for discussion during two panels at Carleton University last week.

The event, titled ‘On the Hill, Online and in the loop: how social media is changing politics and reporting’ was co-presented by Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication, and the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

(full disclosure: I organized this event with the CJF)

Two panels on both end of the social media spectrum took to the stage.

Politicians, including Marc Garneau, Liberal MP for Westmount-Ville Marie, Megan Leslie, NDP MP for Halifax and Jim Watson, Ottawa’s mayor shared their thoughts. Chris Waddell, Director of Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication moderated.

Up first was a discussion with Ottawa’s top social media political reporters: Glen McGregor from the Ottawa Citizen, Kady O’Malley from CBC.ca, David Reevely from the Ottawa Citizen, Joanna Smith from the Toronto Star and Nick Taylor-Vaisey from Macleans.

Andrew Potter, Managing Editor at The Ottawa Citizen, moderated what he called “the most incestuous panel I’ve ever sat on.”

The reporters all agreed on one thing: that while they use twitter a great deal, it is limited in its reach and as a tool.

VIDEO: CPAC coverage of this panel

“My concern is when people find sources on Twitter and that’s where it stops,” said Smith (@smithjoanna). “At some point we need to stop, pick up the phone and call someone. We need to do what we need to do to report a story.”

Taylor-Vaisey (@TaylorVaisey) agreed, adding while what people say on twitter has value, you still need to go to a scene and follow up. He added that it’s important to remember that not everyone is on twitter.

Twitter rewards ‘zingers’

Reevely (@DavidReevely) pointed out that Twitter by its nature rewards “zingers”.

“That’s what is dangerous [about Twitter]. Your incentive becomes getting RT’ed.” He said reporters need to work beyond that.

Reevely added he uses Twitter to establish his credibility as a City Hall reporter focusing on urban planning. He added he tries to avoid the “zingers.”

“If you’re just a jerk, that’s going to show, count against you instantly,” he said.

With this point, O’Malley (@kady) jumped in with her own personal twitter philosophy:

“Be nice, it doesn’t cost extra,” O’Malley said. “If you wouldn’t say something to someone’s face, don’t tweet it,” O’Malley said.

Potter (@jandrewpotter) asked reporters what they thought about tweeting their personal life. McGregor (@glen_mcgregor) said he was less concerned about providing details of his life than he was expressing an opinion on coverage.

O’Malley confessed, “I live tweet my life.”

“When I was first on twitter it gave me a way to reach a larger audience,” she said. “Now you know that if you follow me, you must be interested in at least one of my issues of interest, including books and Dr. Who,”

Incestuousness of Twitter

Smith agreed that there is an incestuousness of #cdnpoli, the hashtag most commonly used on Parliament Hill, and that twitter can exist as “a similar echo chamber” for followers.

She quickly added, “My [Twitter followers] would be wrong to assume that what they see on twitter is what we do all day.”

Taylor-Vaisey said that political reporters should disagree more, not be afraid to be critical. As an example, he mentioned Reevely’s live tweeting a city council meeting the night before, which went until 11 p.m. In one of his tweets, Reevely mentioned that there were no longer any broadcast media in the room.

“I don’t think he was being critical of his colleagues,” Taylor-Vaisey said. “But if everyone did that a little more, we might be more cognisant of what’s being put out there.”

“It would lead to a more robust parliamentary press gallery,” Taylor-Vaisey said.

Kady disagreed with Taylor-Vaisey, and said there was “lots of respectful lively disagreement” in the parliamentary press gallery.

All panellists agreed that paying attention to social media can take time away from reporting, writing web hits, etc., and that newsrooms need to make a conscious decision how to resource social media without over-taxing a reporter in the field.

Humanizing politicians

When Potter asked the reporters what they thought about the humanizing of politicians through Twitter, McGregor said that reporters need to stop turning everything someone tweets into a news story.

He referred to NDP MP Pat Martin’s widely-covered anti-Vic Toews twitter rant in December, which led to Martin quitting the social media platform.

“We want people to show a little of themselves. If we start reporting every time [politicians] step out of line, they are going to revert to their talking points,” McGregor said.

Moderator Chris Waddell, NDP MP Megan Leslie, Liberal MP Marc Garneau and Ottawa mayor Jim Watson
Moderator Chris Waddell, NDP MP Megan Leslie, Liberal MP Marc Garneau and Ottawa mayor Jim Watson

Reaching constituents

VIDEO: Watch CPAC coverage of this panel

While the reporters’ panel focussed mainly on Twitter, the politicians said their most valuable communications with constituents occurs via Facebook.

“We actually see a lot of case work coming in through Facebook,” NDP MP Megan Leslie (@MeganLeslieMP) said.

Liberal MP Marc Garneau (@MarcGarneau) said that while he started reaching out to people on Facebook, he moved over to twitter in 2010, and is now a self-described addict to the social media platform.

“It’s the first thing I look at in the morning, and I check it many times throughout the day,” Garneau said.

Mayor Jim Watson (@JimWatsonOttawa) said that while he has a Facebook fan page, “it seems to have plateaued at 2,400 fans.” He then called on the audience to “please, be my friend, or like me, or fan me…”

More seriously, Watson said that he does 95 per cent of his own tweets.

Independence when tweeting

Moderator Chris Waddell (@cwaddell27) asked the politicians if they had a lot of independence when it came to tweeting.

“Well, if folks were controlled [by the party], we wouldn’t have Pat Martin’s tweets,” Leslie quipped, to laugher.

She added that the NDP’s communications team makes suggestions as to what she should tweet, but that “I have the password to my account.”

Garneau said that there is a “sense of party discipline” among the Liberals, but because he recently ran as a candidate for leadership of the federal party, he had “an opportunity to freelance.”

“You can step out, talk about things would do if you were chosen as leader,” he said. “There are of course boundaries, but I’m allowed to say things. Now that I’m not campaigning, I have to remember I’m back in the party ranks.”

Watson said that almost every councillor has a twitter account, and that he felt it was a great way to hear from politicians unfiltered.

Judging the issues through twitter

Watson pointed that there is a reality check to the social media platform: While his 19,000 followers may seem impressive, in a city of 900,000 it’s really not reaching everyone – or allowing him to hear from all of his constituents.

Garneau said that it help to gauge reaction to immediate issues, like the federal budget that was released last month, and see what individuals are saying, but that he monitors national issues through twitter, rather than his constituents’ concerns (who are more likely to reach out on Facebook, he said.)

Leslie said that while it’s hard to judge the issues, it’s also difficult to judge the reach of her story. While Leslie might deliver a “zinger” that amused the parliamentary press gallery, she said she is often disappointed in how rarely this translates into a full story in mass media with wider reach.

Dealing with trolls

Watson said his attitude to dealing with trolls is that “I’m not going to waste my time, have my blood pressure rise, just because this person is annoying.”

Leslie said she has a “couple of trolls I have affection for,” and that often she’ll simply reply “right back at you” when they fire off personal attacks.

Watson added that twitter is for him an effective way to stop incorrect information in its tracks. He noted a tweet he received from someone who hadn’t seen a snowplough at one of Ottawa’s suburban intersections.

“I happened to be there, and I saw the plough, so took a picture and tweeted it,” Watson said. He added “I didn’t hear back from them.”

Watson then joked that perhaps he could save the city money by simply attaching a plough to the front of his car.

Garneau said he will write a tweet to a troll and then delete it before sending.

“It’s cathartic. It feels good.”

Campaigning and fundraising

Leslie said she found social media “incredibly useful” when campaigning.

“I use it to humanize myself. I love Buffy Vampire Slayer, I tweet about it. I’m a real person…. I make my breakfast in the morning. I’m a real person, I’m just a gal from your community.” She said.

Garneau said he gets a lot of people communicating with him via social media who “don’t want to know about politics, they want to know things like what happens if you sneeze in space.” (He later explained that sneezing can be a messy affair in space.)

“[Twitter] allows people to see part of who you are, that might be humour, or something about the personality that helps them see who you are,” Garneau said.

It’s important to look at tweets that you get back saying you’re wonderful and remember that it’s not the whole country that feels this way, he added.

Watson said that when campaigning, he always tweets the schedule he gives to the media.

Leslie said that Facebook allowed her to track comments; twitter “made me cry a lot.”

“I felt held hostage by my twitter account. People would tweet ‘what do you think about foreign trade, respond or you’re going to lose my vote’,” she said. She added that this was close to impossible in 140 characters.

Leslie said she also suffered a twitter whisper campaign that she didn’t live in the riding, (she rents rather than owns property), and is unsure what the 2015 campaign will be like.

Watson agreed that twitter followers often have “an unrealistic expectation that we’re going to answer right away… It’s Impossible to get back to people right away.”

He said he would be happy if people went back to “writing me a letter.”

All three politicians agreed that social media hasn’t yet been harnessed for fundraising.

“Obama set the gold standard, but Canadians are far behind on this,” Watson said. “I suspect in two years we’ll be a little more sophisticated to raise funds.”

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