Twitter's Difficult Gift To Journalism

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Twitter — the phenomenally popular micro-blogging site — continues to make international headlines as both a source of news and as a platform for news dissemination, most recently attracting attention over its role in the coverage of the Iranian elections.

At the same time, increasing numbers of professional journalists are signing up to Twitter, viewing the site not only as a reporting tool but also as a device for live audience interaction. One crucial effect of this interaction has been to break down those barriers between news producers and consumers that have tended to isolate the more traditional "legacy media".

The ABC is just one Australian media outlet that has launched into the Twittersphere, incorporating the platform into its coverage of breaking news and using it to build potential new audiences, while soliciting greater engagement from the audience it already has. At last count, the ABC was operating 93 official Twitter accounts while dozens of producers, reporters and other staff maintain personal accounts. As the network's most prominent tweeter, Lateline presenter Leigh Sales told me "I'm giving Twitter a red hot go!"

In spite of its rapid uptake by media professionals, many change-resistant journalists view Twitter and other social media as threatening and dangerous. Detractors have argued that it is yet another weapon in the ongoing war against professional journalism which threatens to sink the fourth estate, or a symptom of its demise. In an echo of the great Blogging versus Journalism wars you will hear them wail that "Twitter isn't journalism". No, but just like blogging, it can be a platform for journalistic practice by both professionals and amateurs.

I'm a Twitter convert and regular user too, as well as a researcher into professional media practices, and while I don't regard it as the salvation of professional journalism from convergent industry crises, I do see tweeting as one of the new skills journalists need as part of their professional practice. It's also an essential venue for media outlets seeking to remain relevant in the age of social media.

Twitter is now regarded by many media outlets (e.g. ABC, Sky News and News Ltd) as an essential addition to a reporter's kitbag, and there are many reasons why in some newsrooms, tweeting has become close to compulsory. Aside from breaking news on the platform, journalists are using Twitter to make contact with other professional journalists around the globe, crowdsource stories and contacts, subvert PR and political spin, and develop more meaningful, reciprocal relationships with audiences (see my recent research into the role Twitter is playing in the Australian media here).

Crucially, Twitter is also raising important new questions about ethics and professionalism, and raising them faster than media organisations can answer them. While outlets like the Wall St Journal, the New York Times and Bloomberg have recently instituted social media policies with specific application to Twitter, not one of the 25 journalists I recently interviewed from Fairfax, News Ltd, ABC, ACP, Sky News and a range of smaller outlets was aware of such a policy in their workplace – although the ABC is currently in consultation with staff about the development of a social media policy applicable to Twitter.

It's not hard to see why some organisations are feeling the need to develop guidelines on how Twitter and other social media are used. One of the key contemporary journalistic dilemmas — how to define or redefine objectivity in the social media age — is being played out live on Twitter. Why is Twitter central to this dilemma? Because it merges the professional and the personal, the public and the private — blurring the lines of engagement for journalists trained to be didactic observers and commentators rather than participants in debates and characters within stories. Reporters' use of the platform to express feelings and opinions on a range of issues has raised red flags about professional conduct and bias.

Paradoxically, this exposure humanises journalists in the eyes of the people they depend upon as consumers of their journalism, potentially making the journalists and their work more appealing. Wotnews editor, Gen Robey, says keeping the personal and professional separate is increasingly difficult when you're trying to maximise the benefits of networks like Twitter. "The overlapping of the personal and professional (and thus emphasis on trust and meaningful relationships) is often what makes Twitter so powerful."

In my view, while the offer of balance, fairness and accuracy remain important aspects of the journalistic function, it's narrow and anachronistic to regard "he-said-she-said"-style news reporting as the only valid form of journalism. Neither do I subscribe to the view that journalists should be un-opinionated, one-dimensional information processors.

Another way Twitter is changing the rules is by exposing society's scrutineers to scrutiny themselves — and as some journalists have discovered, that can be a chastening experience. One journalist who's been forced to reassess his use of Twitter as a public platform for personal views is the technology writer at the Sydney Morning Herald, Asher Moses. Moses was recently outed by Crikey for sexist comments he made on his Twitter account during the Matthew Johns sex scandal.

Beyond Moses's controversial genuine tweet, Crikey itself erred by mistakenly attributed other quotes to him (sourced from a fake Twitter account set up by a Moses impersonator), and subsequently apologised for that sloppy work. But the real Asher Moses admits he tweeted this: "So Matthew Johns' career is over because a slutty groupy admits he had consensual sex with him and his teammates 7 years ago and now regrets it?"

While Moses maintains the view he expressed was not an uncommon one, he told me he regrets what he said: "Although I wrote the tweet in my own time on a personal Twitter account…I used two words that in hindsight were inappropriate, particularly considering I mainly used Twitter for work-related messages. I quickly deleted the post, but by then it was too late, and within a day I had Crikey…breathing down my neck," he said. "It's sad in a way, but you really have to assume that whatever you write is going to be viewed by the whole world and you have to be prepared for people to link your personal views to your employer."

As result of the experience Moses has changed his tweeting habits. While he used to view Twitter as a "personal space for…personal thoughts and opinions," engaging in a range of discussions on Twitter interspersed between links to his SMH stories, he's now decided to restrict his Tweeting to purely work-related messages.

Although he doesn't endorse Moses's views on the Johns scandal, ACP's Jason Whittaker, defends Moses's right as a journalist to tweet his opinions and indulge in news commentary in the aftermath of the controversy. Whittaker maintains a Twitter account that showcases his own opinions, blending the personal and the professional, and is not convinced that journalists must always behave as if they were in the public domain. He believes readers are able to make the distinction between the different functions a journalist may perform at different times, asking, "Can't [the public]accept journos are not mindless drones and DO have opinions — [and that a journalist can still]do the job as an objective observer when on the clock?"

There remain, however, significant professional, ethical and industrial questions that need to be asked around Twitter as journalists race to enter the Twittersphere. What's fair game for reporters on the platform? Is everything said in this public space reportable and on the record? Do you need to get permission from a tweeter to quote one of their tweets? How much of an additional burden is daily tweeting for already overloaded journalists? And what's the impact of constant tweeting on their capacity to produce considered, original journalism?

All tweet-worthy questions…

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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