If you’ve been on Twitter this afternoon and you were particularly attentive, you might have noticed the word ‘verklaring’ sneaking into the bottom of the list of trending topics. It’s the second time in two days that a Dutch word has made it into the top 10, but this is nothing like yesterday, when people were happily tweeting their plans for the national holiday of Hemelvaart (Ascension Day). Today’s Twitter rush is interesting for what it says about the crisis in the modern media, and particularly the print media.
‘Verklaring’ in its literal sense means ‘explanation’, though in this context ‘clarification’ would be closer to the mark. This morning the popular Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, which despite its broadsheet format is the closest thing Holland’s media has to a tabloid, published an exclusive interview with a nine-year-old boy called Ruben van Assouw. Ruben was the only survivor of a devastating plane crash in Tripoli that cost the lives of more than 100 people, including his parents and older brother. The Telegraaf’s journalist, Jolande van der Graaf, reported that she had spoken to Ruben for several minutes on a doctor’s mobile phone as he lay in his hospital bed. She wrote: ‘The doctor allowed the boy to talk for a few minutes with this newspaper’s reporter.’ The article was accompanied by photographs of the injured boy in his hospital bed.
The publication was swiftly condemned by Twitter users in Holland, as well as by the Dutch Minister for Children and the Family, Andre Rouvoet, who insisted he was ‘hugely angry’ at De Telegraaf’s behaviour. Particularly unfortunate was the sentence early in the article, which read: ‘Ruben said he could remember nothing of the accident and had not been informed of the loss of his parents Patrich and Trudy and his brother Enzo (11).’ This sentence, as ambiguous in Dutch as it is in English, suggested that the reporter might have broken the news to the boy of his parents’ death.
Given the wave of outrage, De Telegraaf moved swiftly to publish a clarification – ‘verklaring’ – on its website. It said Van der Graaf had been unexpectedly put through to Ruben when she telephoned one of his doctors, and emphasised that she said nothing during the conversation about the accident or the fate of Ruben’s family. The newspaper added that it had published the conversation because Ruben was ‘a symbol of life in this huge tragedy’.
What De Telegraaf had, in short, was what journalists – particularly the tabloid variety – fondly think of as a good, old-fashioned scoop. A one-to-one interview with the sole survivor of a devastating air crash, with pictures, is the sort of thing that in the old days had editors screaming ‘hold the front page!’ across the newsroom. The problem is, these aren’t the old days. Newspapers are learning the hard way that public outrage at certain types of story is real, and the rise of social media has given them an unprecedented outlet for it. The old excuse: ‘people gripe about this stuff, but then they sneak out to the newsagents and buy it’ no longer holds. Now that people can vent their outrage online, and share the object of their opprobrium without paying for it, its value to advertisers is dead. The rationale used to be: get a juicy story, boost the circulation for a week and rake in the revenue. In today’s fragmented media climate, however, intrusive stories such as De Telegraaf’s have become a liability. Nobody will pay to be associated with a public outcry.
Journalists may decry the hypocrisy of a public that gnashes its teeth while privately trying to steal a glimpse of the boy in his hospital bed, but that’s not what matters. It never has been. Tabloid newspapers know better than most people that rage is infectious; what they are now discovering is that social media allows it to be turned against them. A similar thing happened in Britain during the general election, when four newspapers published damning stories about the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg on the morning of the second election debate. It sparked such a wave of ridicule on Twitter, giving birth to the hashtag #nickcleggsfault, that the stories died within a day. Having taken their readers for granted for so long, newspapers are learning the meaning of the phrase ‘right to reply’. For better or worse, they need to reshape their whole newsgathering ethos to fit in with the new media landscape. If they fail, they will perish.
Update: A third Dutch topic has since entered the Twitter charts. It’s Vries – the name of the departing defence minister, Jack de Vries, who is resigning after details of an extramarital affair with one of his staff were made public. He, too, had to issue a ‘verklaring’, explaining his reasons for stepping down. So scandal sells, but personal tragedy doesn’t. It’s a confusing time to be an editor.