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Are we too busy tweeting graphic images & whacky animal stories to ask questions?

A preemtive strike? Who knows, but story goes global via Minister’s Facebook : how social media is shaping our news

by Robin Tennant-Wood

On 16 May a photo appeared on the official Facebook page of the ACT Minister for Territory and Municipal Services and Greens Member for Molonglo, Shane Rattenbury.

The photo of the Minister’s legs, sporting a couple of nasty lacerations, had a brief description of how, while on his morning run, Rattenbury had startled a grazing kangaroo on a nature strip in inner suburban Canberra. In its hasty departure the poor critter connected its claws with the Minister’s legs.

While it’s tempting to dwell on the irony of a Greens member being attacked by wildlife, of more interest is where this otherwise fairly innocuous little slice of Canberra life went after its airing on Facebook and the form in which it returned.

Within hours the photo had featured on the websites of the ABC news, The Guardian (UK), CNN (USA), The Independent (UK), the Huffington Post (USA), Modesto Bee (USA), the Yahoo! and MSN news sites and on Twitter’s #Vanzonews (Brazil): “político australiano é atacado por canguru”.

We all know that international news agencies love a whacky Australian animal story, and MSN went so far as to run the headline: “Politician attacked by kangaroo as Australia again proves terrifying”, commenting that “Everything we know about Australia we learned from cartoons and Outback commercials and, as it turns out, they’re both pretty accurate.”

The report in the more serious Guardian, however, noted that Rattenbury said that the Greens have not opposed the now annual kill of kangaroos in the national capital and appeared to indicate his support with quotes.

This comes just as it has been revealed that no independent scientific evaluation of culling has been carried out in the ACT for five years, and while the notion that one species of native fauna can have a “detrimental impact” on the ecosystem in the light of the rapid development in the urban Canberra environment is self-contradictory, there was no questioning of the Minister’s statement.

Instant messaging raises many questions, not least about accuracy of the ‘good story’, and about citizen involvement

The use of social media as a means of instantly spreading news to a global audience is accepted and widespread. When British soldier, Lee Rigby, was murdered in broad daylight last month the images we saw of his alleged killers, still brandishing their bloodied weapons, were not from the traditional and respected news agencies but from shocked bystanders recording the images on their phones.

This raises three questions at the heart of our increasing reliance on social media. Firstly, in turning us all into potential citizen-journalists are serious issues being reduced merely to good stories?

The Rattenbury story has a good narrative: Greens politician attacked by kangaroo appears to support culling the kangaroo population to save the environment. Beyond the narrative, however, is a deeper issue that is not addressed in a Facebook status or a 140-character tweet.

The second concern is the dynamic nature of the medium. Issues arise, are spread via the internet, consumed, and vanish. There is no time for reflection or questioning. No room for debate or discussion.

Finally, how do we, as citizens, deal with issues that arise? Are we becoming dispassionate observers, disseminators and consumers of news instead of actively engaged citizens?

Did any of the bystanders with their phones on that London street attempt to apprehend the alleged killers? Has anyone raised questions about the inherent flaws in Rattenbury’s statement about culling kangaroos? Or are we just too busy tweeting graphic images and whacky animal stories?



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