Media Storm of the Month – May 2011

By the time you read this, the media phenomenon that is ‘planking’ will have gone the way of Y2K, Napster and Rebecca Black – relegated to the scrapheap of dull irrelevant news from yesteryear.

But if you can cast your mind right back to the beginning of the month, you might recall the social media driven pastime was hitting the news in a big way, especially after the tragic death of an intoxicated Brisbane planker.

Fairfax papers had plenty to say after the incident:

It was a harmless craze just four days ago. Kerri-Anne Kennerley opened her television talk show lying balanced, face-down, on the back of a couch. Karl Stefanovic was lying flat on the Today show desk in front of the cameras.

But early yesterday morning, the ”planking” fad sweeping social networking sites proved fatal. Acton Beale, 20, was positioning himself on a balcony railing seven storeys up in Brisbane when he lost his footing and plunged to his death in the car park below.

Calls to ban the fad came thick and fast. News Limited described the phenomenon as “spreading like a virus around the world” and conservative commentators derided the youth of today and called for reinstated compulsory national service to give Gen Y something constructive to do.

So what gave the planking craze such strong media kudos? Sure 130,000 odd people ‘liked’ the Planking Australia page on Facebook. So what? More than four million people ‘like’ the page for chocolate chip cookies, but you don’t see Karl gorging himself on biscuits on Today, nor do we hear about the “cookie eating plague sweeping the globe”.

The answer comes down to a couple of simple journalistic rules known as news values.

The idea goes that any potential news item can be assessed for newsworthiness based on six or seven key criteria.

These are often defined as impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, bizarreness, conflict and currency, or some combination of these.

Unfortunately for all of us, planking ticks a couple of these boxes with a big red felt pen.

First is impact. The story ‘grew legs and ran’ after the first death associated with the craze. This was made doubly appetising for media due to two extra factors.

1)      The man who died was a young person, i.e. under 30, and;

2)      The man who died was under the influence of alcohol at the time (Australia’s binge drinking culture is another hot media topic).

This brings us to the second key media value that planking satisfies perfectly: currency.

The rapid rise of social media has sparked an insatiable news appetite for the phenomenon. This means stories that might be insignificant on their own, for example bullying, infidelity or petty crimes, are given extra exposure whenever the issue is linked to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Don’t believe me? Consider how often you hear media reports concerning cyber-bullying compared with plain old garden variety harassment.

News values drive all news coverage and this often leads to criticism of media for ‘sexing up’ some trends far beyond what is warranted, while completely ignoring others which don’t fit the necessary criteria.

So, if you found yourself drowning in the sea of planking stories in May, hopefully now you understand a little more about why.