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.