Twitter Isn’t Journalism

Tweets can recite facts, but Twitter doesn’t qualify as a journalistic vehicle. Pro or con?

Pro: For the Birds

The emerging use of Twitter as a news medium ran smack into the limitations of live tweeting recently during the trial of Russell Williams, a former Canadian Air Force colonel. How did a respected base commander manage to live a double life as a sexual predator?

This question can’t be answered in 140-character chunks. That’s why true media and publications such as the National Post (disclosure: Post Media Network is a client of Scribble Technologies) covering the Williams trial are leveraging new technologies that marry social media with the traditional news gathering process. The difference between these forms of coverage is not speed—both are instant—but content and context.

Twitter works nicely for providing links to existing stories, but with all due respect to those who consider it the future of news, it is not a workable or desirable medium for journalism. Twitter’s limitations make it a poor medium for news coverage.

How much of a story can you tell in 140 characters? Just look at the following sample tweets from the Williams trial:

#Williams—Williams talking with lawyer while judge is speaking. 2 minutes ago via Twitter for iPhone

#Williams—Crown: Williams took bra and panties from the young girl’s bedroom. 7 minutes ago via Twitter for iPhone

#Williams—Crown: Williams spent hours at his Ottawa home—planning and taking pictures of himself in stolen lingerie and panties.

It’s a play-by-play with no context and no comment. It catalogs Williams’ depravity but offers no reflection on it.

I am not criticizing the journalist in this case. It is the tool that limits the expression. There is no way to extend the post other than to link to a previously existing story that would no longer be "live."

By contrast, the coverage by the NationalPost pulled content from multiple sources to offer a chilling account of the Williams trial. It reads like a news story, albeit a new form of story, complete with photographs, courtroom sketches, and well-thought-out paragraphs from a team of journalists who know how to tell the story and have the space and tools to communicate their ideas.

It combines the immediacy of Twitter with authority, depth of content, and storytelling.

For one final point, consider how news organizations ranging from Reuters to Al Jazeera covered the unrest in Egypt in real time. Reuters provided continuous live updating of the crisis, complete with thoughtful reporting, images, and video. Al Jazeera instantly published audio reports via phone calls to break Egypt’s attempts to muzzle their reporters. These stories are still available to be read today, unlike Tweets. Instant, authoritative, and persistent: That’s the future of journalism.

Con: Faster Flying News

Twenty-five years ago, CNN disrupted the news world when it launched the first 24-hour news network on cable television. This time around, a microsize Web startup is disrupting the news business, creating the world’s first wire service powered by everyday people. Introducing TNN, the Twitter News Network, and for those individuals glued to their laptops and smart phones, chances are you will learn about the latest news and trends before the press can even react.

The reality is that news no longer breaks; it tweets. Some 200 million people learn about breaking events as they happen, triggering a network effect that demonstrates the reach and velocity of social physics. The human network is becoming a force, a distribution network that rivals traditional newswires.

The question is, is Twitter journalism? If we define journalism as the reporting of news, then yes, it qualifies as a new form of journalism. With every new iterative update, social graphs transform into a highly organized information distribution system that resembles an Amber Alert network for the social Web—with far greater speed, reach, impact, and resonance. To deny it is to deny the voice of humanity.

Is it merely a recitation of the facts? Only after news media catch up with the news that had already trended for at least an hour before they could respond. I call this the information divide, the time between a news event, when it breaks on Twitter, and when the news media finally reports it. This is why news teams are now monitoring Twitter streams much in the same way medical professionals monitor the pulse in the ER.

Why? The average person on Twitter is connected to 140 people. Add ReTweets and reactions to the mix, and suddenly important information can travel faster than the traditional news cycle of responding to an event, checking facts, and reporting. Neither one is wrong, just different. Twitter has earned a place in the information economy, and it cannot be minimized. In fact, journalists could benefit from an internship at TNN. It’s where they’ll learn how to compete for the future.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Kristi Eells

Brian brings up some great points here. Is Twitter journalism? No, but has it evolved into another way for journalists to get resources, share news, receive feedback (both good and bad), all be it on a small scale? Absolutely. On one hand, this is an amazing vehicle to distribute information-- people, blogs, articles, etc. that would normally never get exposure can turn into Twitter superstars over night. However, it's too easy to circulate false information (i.e. weekly celebrity death hoaxes), so it's better suited for one-off convo's rather than full overviews/stories. Now if we were debating whether Twitter qualifies as a PR vehicle, there'd be no question of its value.

Paul

I'm in the "it's not journalism" camp, but that may be just a difference of opinion on what journalism is. (Or was?) The exclusive power to publish left the mainstream media some time ago and today's tools let us share events and emotions instantly---and without regard for context, accuracy, or even civility. It's an indispensable tool that I love, but it and other new communication channels have effectively benched professional journalism, creating a growing gap in discourse that I sorely miss.

Rachel Kay

Brian and Michael,

What a great discussion. Both of you make some excellent points, and after reading both a couple of times, I still don't know who I agree with (the most).

Almost every piece of breaking news I heard this year I found first through Twitter. That said, I spend a lot of time there, so that makes sense. I'm certainly inclined to side with Brian there, that Twitter is often the fastest resource for breaking news. In addition, most media outlets are using Twitter as one of their reporting vehicles, in addition to the power regular Joes have to propel stories of interest.

However, I think most people like me confirm the news and seek more in-depth reporting on our old standbys, like CNN, meaning that "news" and "journalism" are two different things.

I'm still undecided. It's an interesting topic and you are both very persuasive.

Rachel Kay
@rachelakay

Bryce Wilcock

It may not be seen as a form of journalism now--however, I believe sites such as Twitter could well become seen as journalism vehicles in the future. This is due to the huge impact of online culture within the lives of all young people and the rise of such short messages; they would seem to be a lot more interesting in comparisson to longer stories within the future.

d.patt

Article about Twitter and no easy way to share the link. #FAIL.

John S. Stewart

Is Twitter journalism? Were the movie newsreels of the 1930's and 40's and later the "top of the hour" 2-minute TV news roundups of the 50's and 60's journalism? Yes, an abbreviated form that. like tweets. needed follow-up or a link to the expanded story. The big difference is that everyone can tweet so there is no filtering of sources. Now, more than ever a news source's most important asset is its credibility rather than its ability to disseminate information.
@LEFTeyeSTORIES

Dutchy

Let me just say one thing. Twitter was first with 95% of the news from the Egypt uprising. If you use Twitter in a good way, check sources, ignore rumours, it's definitely the most valuable news source of a modern journalist. Ask AlJazeera.

Anastasios Oikonomou

If we define journalism as "the collection, preparation, and distribution of news and related commentary and feature material," the act of transmitting valuable information, I can't see how it can be said that Twitter isn't connected with journalism. Sometimes it's not only news medium but it's fascinating too.

Celeste Chaney

Seems to me that this will remain an unresolved debate.

Those who enjoy the consumption of more traditional media will continue down that path. Innovators and early adopters will gravitate toward more instantaneous consumption, via Twitter and other emerging networks.

I think Twitter has the upper hand though, because it has the power to do something that traditional media does not.

Twitter injects itself into the story and often transforms the outcome (think #jan25). Twitter, instant and far-reaching, is able to assemble and rally.

Traditional media, although powerful (and, in my opinion, necessary) in its own right, more passively observes and commentates.

The perfect marriage of both lends to a more vibrant picture of what's unfolding, as it unfolds.

I'll be interested to see how they incorporate that in J-school (I agree with Brian, an internship at TNN is necessary!).

@CelesteEC

Mark

@Dutchy If you do those things, you are engaging in journalism, I agree. But in order to get at the valuable news, you had to wade through reams of retweets and, frankly, junk tweets. There is a huge role for selection and editing in journalism as well.

Shirley Osei-Mensah

Journalism is part of what Twitter is. Twitter is many things put together.

Alan

Not journalism.

cksyme

I don't think the question is about Twitter--it's about culture. Journalists are not the ones that determine news anymore. Twitter is journanlism if that's where people get their news.

Karen Fawcett

Twitter is not journalism. It is immediate real-time communications that may or may not be accurate.

Welcome to the new world.

JCS

Twitter is indicative of the mindset of those that use it. It is fact minus the context, perfect for the uneducated and uncaring who confuse knowing with understanding. About the only real news that can be transmitted in 140 characters is what the wire services used to call a "flash"--reports like "Shuttle explodes" and "President Kennedy Shot In Dallas."

Sally Rose

I stand by my initial response...of course Twitter is not journalism. Twitter--used well--can be a great tool for journalists, though.

Mike

The title and arguement are flawed. That is like asking, is TV journalism? No, but you can watch the news. Newscasts are journalism. Skins is not, but both air on TV. Journalists use Twitter. Not all tweeters are journalists. Twitter is not journalism. Twitter is the medium [through which] journalism can be processed.

J

@Mike
What the debate wants to convey is whether short text without context can be defined as journalism.

I agree with JCS that it's fact minus context. It's for the uneducated. Comparing Twitter even to my college paper is insulting to me and my fellow mates.

Tom Gable

Twitter is only a channel that transmits, like radio, TV, CB radio, ham radio, carrier pigeon, pony express, etc. Journalists create journalism. Twitter enables anyone to transmit information, alerts, and observations, which can be the foundation for future journalism and news of consequence.

Steven Spenser

As someone who used to work for an actual news network--The Associated Presas well as The Seattle Times, I can affirm that Twitter is most definitely not journalism. It might be used as a vehicle to transmit breaking news, but that does not mean those Twitterers are journalists or that they are engaged in journalism.

I’ve seen some social-media enthusiasts claim that Twitter is effectively a real-time news network. But news networks and news organizations take pains to verify their news before publication. Twitter obviously can't even begin to approach that standard.

Just because some individuals use Twitter to send reports of unfolding events, and because it has happened in multiple, highly publicized cases, does not mean Twitter must be a news network. People who insist this are mistaking the use of a microblogging platform for the effect of some of the messages transmitted on it.

News can be spread in real time via e-mail, but that doesn't make Google or other Webmail services into news networks. Cell phones can spread news in real time, but no one claims that Verizon is a news network. Merely transmitting accounts that may, or may not, be factual does not make Twitter, or any particular medium, a news network--and it does not, necessarily, make those who tweet into reporters or citizen-journalists.

Simply because some people use Twitter to spread their version of events does not mean that Twitter itself is a news network. Certainly some tweets may contain news, but Twitter has been plagued by numerous examples of inaccurate tweets that spread rumors and unfounded claims, such as right after Rep. Giffords was shot. This is proof that no one can ever be sure that any tweet is factual. (Or even comes from the actual person it claims to be from: "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog.")

News transmitted by unknown and unverifiable sources is often highly unreliable. I'm sure many governments are, and have been, tweeting disinformation ever since the Iranian protests in 2009, and doubtless many propagandists, campaign managers, politicians, and PR practitioners do as well every day.

The problem with living in a world where everyone can be a publisher is that we have no means of judging the credibility or accuracy of the source. If everyone is special, then no one is special, and real reporting can get drowned in the cacophony.

Why should anyone believe an unknown source's subjective interpretation of what may (or may not) be happening is truly happening in the way the stranger claims it to be? Those of us who have been first responders know that you’re likely to get as many different versions of a traumatic event as you have witnesses to relate them.

Gullible people need to consider the source of every tweet, and assume, until proven otherwise by a credible source, that what they read on Twitter is unreliable, unverified, untrue or deliberately transmitted to achieve certain effects.

Steven Spenser
Principal
Praxis Communication/Seattle
www.linkedin.com/in/stevenspenser

Allan Schoenberg

I've never thought of Twitter as journalism but more of a crowdsourcing platform to distribute news. It certainly can be a platform to "break" news (e.g., US Airways flight 1549), but that's merely a headline. It's clearly a new resource to get news out, but to me it's not journalism.

@allanschoenberg

burt

@J, "It's fact without context." I think you are being kind. It is highly questionable that most Tweets are factually correct. So now we've got no context and unchecked facts.

august

Is a hammer a set of tools? Is a sentence a book? Is your picture your substance?

C'mon people. Twitter is neat but good grief, you sell yourselves short.

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