Journalism, Meet Twitter (two paradoxes)

On: October 5, 2009
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About Morgan Currie
I’m an American with eight years of experience in video production, but today I'm a student in Amsterdam, thinking a lot about mediums, the Media, technology, and humans & machines communicating in their specific, special ways. I'm finding methods to give these thoughts a space of their own.


“Weird: I tweeted, Anderson Cooper’s person saw it, seconds later I’m phoning in to CNN on the Letterman affair(s). Talk about Twitter power” – Howard Kurtz’s Twitter feed, for the Washington Post.

Traditional journalism is having to contend with Twitter. That’s because after three years of the sites’ existence, the micro blog service proved it can do more than enable someone to tweet about his cereal. Twitter, tag-teaming with SMS, allows anyone with a cell phone to break news; en masse it forms a collective and powerful tide. Twitters are famously out-scooping reporters during crises such as Iran’s election and the 2008 Chinese earthquake. To maintain a relevant foothold in defining what passes as news and how it reaches us, traditional journalism must confront the hyper metabolism of micro-blogs.

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And so they are. Reporters are digging into the Twitter app, building audiences on platforms owned by companies other than their employers. NYT has over 30 Twitter accounts. Some reporters use the new medium with enthusiasm, working with the possibilities inherent in the 140 character constraint. It’s all happening so fast, do the old media scions have time to figure out what will this mean for reporting?

This is brand extension, sure, but it’s as much reactionary as strategic. Academic analysis is just emerging; Oxford held a social media convention on Sept 18th to suss out implications and ask if twitter is even journalism (according Richard Sambrook, director of BBC’s Global News division, it’s not). Newspapers are rolling out social networking protocols for their reporters. How will this affect the way we create and consume news?

To dig in, here are two paradoxes of the news and social media cocktail.

Paradox 1: Process Journalism

Because of the limited interface, twitter encourages “news as it happens” or so-called process journalism – stories that break in real time on mobile phones rather than the computer back in the office. You start with teasing hooks as an event begins (pre-press conference coffee tweet), followed by a punch of substantive information (press conference announcement), ending with a few tweets of leading questions and prompts to check later on the news homepage. CNN, NYT, LAT, and AP all tweeted in this way at the Sotomayer hearing last June. Put together, is this frankenstein journalism? Or a fix for junkies who prefer real-time news over analysis?

Traditional codes of verification and accuracy are obviously as stake. As this blog has pointed out before, twittering lies somewhere between orality and literacy; it’s more of a conversation reduced to short sentences, and as such doesn’t much encourage interpretive activity; sure it can function like a wire of blunt reports similar to the AP’s, but the medium is still inherently social. Twitter slang (WTF, BTW, CU) is simply a reification of the issue. Contrary to this, true reportage takes time, not short hand.

At the Oxford conference, the BBC’s Sambrook came out with the verdict: twitter is information, but it’s not journalism. There’s a difference between a report and proper reportage which has context and angle, discipline and analysis. We can find value in the profession of journalism precisely in this contrast. But if this is the case, is “process journalism” on microblogs just a paradox?

Whatever it is, incremental journalism is something we’ll have to contend with, because ultimately it shapes and drives the news itself. Sources or subjects must respond faster and faster to reports; conversations will spawn around the counter-responses, and so on. This new platform is going to play a part in creating our world, as much as we twitter about it.

Paradox two: New Objectivity

Newspapers are contending with the fact that reporters extend their professional identities through online ones. In the sphere of social networks, news is a conversation evolving between reporters, sources, and readers; it’s more intimate, more personal, immediate and unruly. In reaction to how their reporters use twitter, and how hard it is to control these digital extensions, news organizations are writing social networking policies.

The key issue is objectivity vs. opinion. After one of its editors tweeted about healthcare reform (“We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not, But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad.”) the Washington Post created its own twitter policy, ruling that “Nothing we do [on Twitter and Facebook] must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment.” Also: “Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything – including photographs or video – that could be perceived as reflecting political racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.”

Critics of such policies ask, do people really believe anymore that reporters don’t have a perspective? And isn’t the Washington Post ignoring the paradox inherent in its policy, that neutral POV doesn’t work very well on a social networking site, where tweeting is a conversation, and conversation requires perspective?

In contrast, the NYT has created a more flexible, wait-and-see response. Rather than a policy per se, it simply asks its reporters to use caution and intuition when deciding what to post on Twitter. “Be careful not to write anything on a blog or a personal Web page that you could not write in The Times — don’t editorialize, for instance, if you work for the News Department.  Anything you post online can and might be publicly disseminated, and can be twisted to be used against you by those who wish you or The Times ill…”

One way to handle reporters’ use of the medium is to consider BBC’s Sambrook’s idea of a “new objectivity” that puts a premium on transparency, on where the news comes from and how, in addition to the staid (but essential) notions of fairness and accuracy. The emergence of news is now as important as news itself. And since newspapers no longer own the news (thanks, citizen reporters), journalists will have to share. While online, reporters should identify themselves, be discreet, and use their analytical expertise to dive into the conversation.

Moving Forward: Twitter Curators

Are there new roles for reporters as twitter curators? Sky News, for instance, has set one of its own on the task of twitter-trawling to find scoops, and Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic provided fantastic analysis of Iran’s election protests by verifying and analyzing twitter feeds.

The problem with this, though, goes back to the issue of trust. Are anonymous tweets of immediate value, if you don’t know the accuracy of the source? Maybe micro blogging will evolve its own constellation of ethical checkpoints, a la wikipedia. After a while, a sort of internal monitoring might weed out fakers and encourage greater reliability.

Final Thoughts

Twitter is young, social networkers are impetuous, and open source microblogs, like PubSubHubbub,could be twitter killers. Twitter’s specific impact on news isn’t as important as how the microblog format of instant gratification will resonate.

Will people value immediacy more than analysis? Immediacy is cheap, and its vehicles at the moment are software corporations and mobile devices. Analysis takes more skill, more time, hence monetization beyond the money raked in by the social networks. Now we’re back at the nagging question of how we’ll fund professional reportage.

I like to stay informed, but I have no taste for twitter or microblogging. Even as a shorthand format, twitter seems to require more engagement with media, both to create and receive. Short bursts over time are more consuming than compartmentalized engagement with our gadgets. The rest of the time we can sun, stroll, read paperback literature, or converse in the flesh. I’ll stay in the analysis camp, and I’ll pay for it, and here’s hoping you’ll join me.

For more information on the issue of Twitter and journalism, I recommend following the Twitterjournalism blog that covers “where news and tweets converge”.

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