Once upon a time reporters gained stories through their contacts, by wearing out shoe leather or burning up the telephone lines. Or so the mythology goes.

These days, they are just as likely to suck the content off social media, which raises the question of whether this is really breaking news at all. If it has already been published, is already being discussed via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, what  juice is left for the squeezers of mainstream media?

Last week, two stories in the headlines were drawn straight from social media — the YouTube bullying video and resulting morality play, which I have written on previously, and the soldiers involved in the Facebook racism scandal in Afghanistan. I think it’s safe to call this movement of news from social media to mainstream media a trend, and it raises a lot of interesting issues.

From a political and social and ethical point of view, what difference does it make when mainstream media rebroadcast content such as the bullying video, which was originally published by a teenager at the school concerned? Does the fact that the content is already in the public realm excuse the flouting of normal ethical standards about not exploiting children?

Should soldiers posting to their friends from Afghanistan heed ethical standards similar to those we expect mainstream broadcasters and publishers to observe? Would we be as outraged if the racist comments they made had been contained, not on Facebook, but in a leaked private email to a group of friends?

And it’s a nice question for the media studies theorists: if a story is playing out on social media, but doesn’t  attract the attention of the mainstream, is it still a story, in the journalistic sense of that word? Have you broken news if you only do it to your followers on Twitter? Or, if you Twitter in the forest and nobody hears, have you still tweeted?

More seriously, the increasing news prominence of social media is also an issue for policy wonks, and for government regulators.

It might not sound all that s-xy, but one of the big media stories of the next couple of years will be the Convergence Review, the very broad terms of reference for which were announced by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy earlier this month. The review is prompted by the realisation that all media is becoming one, and that this presents multiple challenges for standards, both ethical and relating to things such as Australian content. There won’t be an aspect of media in Australia that remains untouched, if the review crew do their gargantuan job properly.

For example, what regulations should apply to internet protocol television, brought to Australian homes from offshore, and including recycled content brought up cheap from any seller? And what ethical standards should apply to YouTube, for example?

The terms of reference charge the review with ensuring “the adequate reflection of community standards and the views and expectations of the Australian public”. But what are they, when it comes to social media? Is the teenager posting a video from the playground the same as A Current Affair?

Does the Australian community want the government to try to regulate social media, trying to prevent, for example, a YouTube bullying video or other abusive material from being posted? Is it even possible to do so?

There is no doubt that the issue is urgent. There is also no doubt our existing bodies for regulating media content are well behind the eight ball.

So far as journalistic content is concerned, we still have the Australian Press Council, which has no jurisdiction over broadcast media and does not cover internet sites such as Crikey. We have the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which covers only broadcast media, and not (so far) internet content.

And among mainstream media, to my knowledge only the ABC has come up with guidelines governing how and when journalists can use the content posted by ordinary citizens, and even these are clearly a work in progress.

And yet the reality of media consumption has moved far beyond the reach of the relatively toothless regulatory bodies. Page 14 of the background paper released for the Convergence Review shows the most popular websites in Australia are Google search, Facebook and the YouTube homepage. This is a change from a few years ago, when ninemsn was in the top billing, largely because of its link up with Hotmail. Ninemsn has now sunk to eight on the top 10, below Google Maps, Wikipedia, eBay and Google image search.

Most traditional media companies are nowhere to be seen — although, of course, the Google homepage might lead many users to them.

The background paper also informs us that, according to a July 2010 report by the Nielsen company, Australia has the highest global average for time spent using social media (more than seven hours per month). In other words, social media has stolen the march on mainstream. It has already overtaken many more traditional channels of conveying news and information.

Social media is a major driver of what we choose to consume in media content. We read or view what our extended online network suggests to us is worthwhile. But social media is also itself a collection of channels and subscriber services. Young people were discussing the bullying video, and soldiers were discussing the racist comments, before the mainstream media sucked the content from the friends networks and made it into headlines.

It is probably safe to assume most Australians don’t want the government to regulate their social media presence, apart from the obvious cases of child p-rnography. To do so would be too much like Big Brother — government entering into the conversations that take place between friends. Yet in a world where anyone can publish, the responsibilities that normally fall on professional journalists and media workers (no matter how they are flouted) to some extent fall on us all.

Perhaps the regulator should only enter the fray when someone is trying to make money from the content. So the axe (if there was an axe) would fall on A Current Affair and Today Tonight, but not on the teenager who posted the original content.

No easy answers, of course. Just thought I’d mention it.

Peter Fray

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