All it Takes Is a Little Imagination

Lots of news about Twitter this week, including several stories about using the social media channel to target print media outlets.

One battle is Ashton Kutcher v. Village Voice. A more disturbing story that broke in U.K. newspapers – about the News of the World (NOTW) hacking the phone account of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler – has turned into an all-out war against the tabloid, using Twitter to encourage advertisers to boycott this Fleet Street staple.

The background is thisNOTW is accused of hacking into the mobile phone account of the young teen, who went missing in 2002; listening to voicemail messages left by distraught family and friends; then deleting voicemails when the mailbox was full so that more messages could be left on the system. When relatives of the missing girl discovered that voicemails had been deleted, they thought they had reason to believe she might still be alive and gave hopeful interviews to NOTW.

News of the phone hackings ultimately got out – there are further allegations, involving hacked accounts of other victims of tragedies – and writer Melissa Harrison at the Guardian newspaper began a campaign to make NOTW’s advertisers uncomfortable enough to withdraw their support for a tabloid that might endorse this kind of unprofessional conduct. You can read her description of the response that followed here.

Harrison’s article frankly discusses the importance and some of the difficulties of a free press in a democratic society – the downside being the risk of immoral behavior creeping in to the newsgathering process.

Social media hasn’t been free of some of these downsides (and it could be argued that the technological acumen that gave us cell phones and hacking also conjured up innovations like Twitter). But, Harrison adds, “it’s times like this when Twitter really comes into its own.”

“As a truly democratic forum, everyone can get involved and have their say, and it’s easy to share information and ideas,” Harrison writes. “And because it’s all so public, it’s very hard for companies to ignore public pressure or hide behind rhetoric. For every 5,000 tweets with a funny cat photo there’s a moment like this, when Twitter remembers what it can really do.”

Tabloids are an easy target for disapprobation. So is Twitter. People buy and read tabloids and use social media for all sorts of reasons. As Harrison notes in her article, it’s easy to dismiss some of the awful things that appear in tabloids with the statement that “they only print it because people want to read it.”

While that may be true of celebrity gossip, I think it’s more nuanced when it comes to stories of missing children. This is just my opinion, but I think it may be that most readers seek out stories like this because of fear, not titillation. They are looking for clues, differently from the official investigators, but just as diligently, about the level of danger in their neighborhoods and that their children might be exposed to. They are weighing the information available to them to decide what to do, how to protect their families, and how to talk to their children about some of the terrible things that happen in this world.

Instead of helping, the tabloid failed its readers, misjudging what they were capable of. From the evidence of Melissa Harrison’s Twitter campaign, all it might have taken was a little imagination on the part of NOTW editors and writers to figure out how to channel the concern for a missing child into something far more valuable and lasting, perhaps a campaign that stirred readers to form neighborhood watch groups or reach out to and support the families of victims or find new ways to protect children when they walk home from school.