Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL302.PRB - Government's Social Media Problems
This legislative session, the House Government Oversight Committee heard a tale of government putting too much reliance on social media.
The committee is investigating why the Revenue Department failed to promptly inform Missourians that their state income tax refunds could be lower than expected.
The department began to realize in the fall that refunds would be lower because of withholding problems.
Asked by the committee chair why so many Missourians are being hit by this tax surprise, Department Director Joel Walters blamed social media.
"When this started to crystallize in the fall, we ramped up a social media campaign to get out and try to inform the public...that's really where we spent most of our attention, was on social media," Walters told the committee.
I was stunned by that response.
I doubted many Missourians actually follow the state's tax collection agency on Twitter or FaceBook. My doubts were confirmed at a later hearing when the committee learned that less than one percent of Missouri taxpayers follow the Revenue Department on social media.
It would have been far more effective to hold news conferences across the state warning Missourians they might not be getting refunds as large as prior years.
The Revenue Department is not the only state agency that has abandoned traditional and more effective methods to communicate with the public.
Many years ago, governors and department directors regularly had open-ended sessions with reporters. These were more than just short media events dominated by prepared statements, but rather an extended time for probing questions.
Maybe Gov. Mike Parson who's stressed transparency ought to urge his administration to shift from social media to more effective efforts to communicate, in person, with the reporters who deliver statehouse news to hundreds of thousands rather than a social media audience of just a few thousand, at best.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that some of us in journalism have made mistakes similar to the Revenue Department.
Earlier this year, The Associated Press posted a story titled "Some journalists wonder if their profession is tweet-crazy."
Reported by David Bauder, the story began: "If Twitter is the town square for journalists, some are ready to step away."
The article recounted the problems various newsrooms have encountered by an over-reliance on social media.
Bauder quoted David Von Drehle with the Washington Post as calling Twitter the "crystal meth of newsrooms."
In the final years before my retirement from the MU Journalism School, I had the same frustration.
I watched as inexperienced reporters sometimes missed stories happening in front of them because their eyes were so focused on their cell phones to tweet and post FaceBook entries.
Von Drehle described seeing the same during the 2012 GOP national convention.
Often, I'd find my student reporters huddled in the statehouse office trolling social media.
I got a reputation for telling them to get off their seats and out of the office to wander the Capitol hallways to talk to the real players in this process including legislators and lobbyists.
After all, a key skill for journalists is the willingness to walk up to complete strangers to ask questions on topics about which you know little.
Years ago when I voiced my concerns about students to long-time St. Louis Post-Dispatch Statehouse Reporter Fred Lindecke, he wisecracked a response probably more effective than my admonishments.
"I never knew of an investigative story that didn't start with a snitch," was Fred's response.
Realize, Fred and I spent most of our careers before internet, the web and social media.
But in my defense, I'm not a digital troglodyte.
I wrote the digital programs that computerized the Missouri Journalism School and authored the grant proposal to IBM that made it possible.
I still write computer code for one of the world's first news websites. And I may be one of the few working journalists who manages websites and even an email server on a home computer.
That digital expertise may be why I understand the limitations of social media for both journalists and government.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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