Using Twitter in the Newsroom

In Online on December 30, 2008 at 10:45 am


(Pic from Geekandpoke)

I hate to harp on again about Twitter, but it’s been heavily on my mind since the Mumbai attacks (This post was delayed for far too long, I know). Once again, Twitter was hailed as the on-the-ground, revolutionary, citizen-journalism breakthrough by the web community. More so this time, when mainstream media paid attention and leveraged on the reporting done through Twitter.

Following Twitter’s success in covering the San Diego fires, Obama”s presidential campaign, and the China Earthquake, there was little doubt that Twitter would take centrestage during the Mumbai attacks. This time around, however, the question of credibility was raised when the BBC admitted to mistakes made using Twitter coverage, especially in regards to the widely-reported tweet that the Indian government called for an end to Twitter updates from Mumbai.

This drew fiery responses from both sides of the issue: on the side of the traditional media gatekeepers are The Independent’s Tom Sutcliffe, who writes that citizens twittering news side-by-side with professional journalists is “a worrying development.”

Twitterers are hair-trigger communicators, and presumably absolutely itching to get something of substance into their despatches.

Whereas a journalist has a reasonably strong incentive not to broadcast misleading or dubious information, because such an eventuality would come with a professional cost, a Twitterer owes no duty except to their own impressions and their own state of mind.

They’ll pass on rumour as readily as fact, and there’s absolutely no way of telling which is which.

On the other side of the argument is Jeff Jarvis, who had plenty of good things to say about the micro-blogging service, so much so that he’s looking beyond Mumbai: “The next news story will be seen live and at eye level,” he writes, talking about the rapid evolution of news where witnesses could use their phones to broadcast live video.

Then you have Dan from Xark saying that this whole argument should be as dead as the “Blogs Vs Proper Journalism” argument, essentially saying that it’s time to leave the curmudgeons behind, that there’s no point arguing with a bunch of news bigots.

It has been basically 13 months since Twitter’s role in journalism entered the discussion within the traditional media sphere, and yet the traditional media is still having the same discussion today, as if those original discussions never happened, as if nothing has changed, as if there have been no additional developments since. And these professionals, who didn’t like Twitter then and still don’t like Twitter now, are acting as if this institutional ignorance is not merely acceptable, but reasonable and responsible, too.

Here’s another way of looking at it: In October 2007, our economy hadn’t yet gone into recession. Would you find it acceptable if later this week CJR posted the question “Are reports of a sub-prime mortgage loan crisis worthy of coverage, or just more junk-economics and fear-mongering?”

Whose side are you on? I’m with Jarvis and Dan on this issue: it’s way too late to argue on the use of Twitter in journalism. It’s out in mainstream media consciousness, it’s going to stay there, and Twitterers are still going watch it when the next big event rolls around. Whether or not major news sites want to use it as a source is up to them.

But if a news organisation is charged with the responsibility of delivering information to its readers, then it should use whatever tools there are at its disposal. And this is where mainstream media can be seen as a hero rather than a stodgy gatekeeper, where only “professional journalists” are qualified to give reports. The issue now, as seen from the Mumbai attacks and other big events covered on Twitter, is how to organise and curate the mess of information floating through: anyone who’d followed the “# subject” tag would know how messy it is to read through each and every 2 or 3 posts flying in per second.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. This means taking the time out to look through selected Twitterers with more relevant content, charging them with responsibility, and checking on rumours, like Amy Gahran did. She explains the lessons we should takeaway in her post Tracking A Rumour:

Media is increasingly unmediated. People are communicating directly, on a global level. We don’t all have to be journalists — but we’d all be better off by adopting stronger media-literacy skills.

Specifically, when you hear something that sounds surprising or important, CHECK OR ASK FOR THE PRIMARY SOURCE before you share the news. It’s not hard to do, and it’s a crucial step.

If something just sounds like common sense (like, “Hey, tweeting details of police movements here might endanger police and hostages, so don’t do that!”), there’s no need to appeal to authority (i.e., saying the police said so) to make people listen. A true common-sense message stands on its own — and in social media like Twitter, it could  carry more credibility as a peer recommendation than if positioned vaguely as an order from “above.”

The takeaway from this post? You can’t beat the Twitter Army, so use ’em.


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