Beware the false intimacy of social media

Shift creeps into relationship between entertainment press, their subjects

In a recent study, the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future observed that many modern blessings come at a price in “extraordinary demands on our time, major concerns about privacy and vital questions about the proliferation of technology — including a range of issues that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” as director Jeffrey Cole summarized it.

Among the many side effects is a perceptible shift creeping into the relationship between entertainment press and their subjects, which seems worth discussing heading into another TV Critics Assn. tour, which, in the parlance of the day, throws Tweet-ers together with Tweet-ees.

Social media remains new enough to receive credit and blame for lots of things — good and bad — that are frequently overblown. Indeed, as new research from Knowledge Networks noted, evidence of social media’s ability to enhance “interest, viewership and loyalty for TV programs” has been “decidedly mixed,” suggesting all those elaborate schemes to sell shows via Twitter and Facebook are likely premature.

On another front, though, it’s clear social media has eroded boundaries that once separated journalists from their sources and subject matter — helping foster a false sense of familiarity that, if you listen carefully during press junkets and conference calls, has oozed its way into the dialogue.

Of course, this implied intimacy and chumminess can be terrific for anyone marketing a product — including TV series, movies or the actual talent themselves — where forging such bonds potentially strengthens a connection with consumers. It is, however, a lousy development for journalists, who — even if they’re in the opinion business — derive a good measure of their credibility from the perspective that ideally comes with distance and objectivity, or at least the appearance of not having a dog in the fight.

The very nature of social media encourages and facilitates breaking down those walls — they don’t call it “coolly detached” media, after all — just as the brevity of a forum like Twitter tends to strip nuance from conversation. With so many voices clamoring to get noticed, things tend to get exaggerated — transforming mere preferences into powerful likes and dislikes, and inflating the latter into rhetorical love-hate relationships.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to wince now listening to journalists preface questions by telling an actor or filmmaker how much they love their work, or blatantly gushing in some other manner. Privately at an HBO party, fine, let that inner fanboy fly. In a room filled with colleagues, it’s embarrassing. To borrow an image from (very) old movies, try keeping one foot on the floor.

With that in mind, here are five rules of engagement meant to help guide reporters through this maze, realizing that while most know better, some obviously don’t. So please, don’t….

•Begin a question with a fawning, complimentary preamble longer than the movie or pilot which brought said journalist and talent together in the first place.

•Confuse the actor with their character, or refer to their fictional alter ego — even in a Tweet — as if it’s a real person. Not only does it make you sound like a pre-teenage girl, but it’s actually insulting to the performer, whose job is to pretend being someone they’re not.

•Get too cute in seeking to entertain. You’re ostensibly there seeking information to convey, not on stage at the Laugh Factory auditioning for a spot on Letterman.

•Ask actors what they’d like to see happen with their characters or how said persona would behave in a given situation. If you’re credentialed to attend TCA (admittedly, not the highest bar), at a minimum you ought to understand the division of labor between actors and writers-producers.

•Sound like a petulant, jilted lover if you don’t approve of how a series closed its season. Remember, you just write about TV shows; you’re not actually dating them.

“We find tremendous benefits in online technology, but we also pay a personal price for those benefits,” Cole said in the Annenberg report. “The question is: How high a price are we willing to pay?”

Journalism has already paid heavy tolls, economically and qualitatively, as admittance to the information age. But with a dollop of restraint, dignity and self-respect don’t have to be among the casualties.