How journalists should use Twitter

December 3, 2008 by  
Filed under Journalists, Media, Mobile, Online, Social Networking

Today the Columbia Journalism Review has posed the question, How should journalists use Twitter? The question comes out of yet another emergency of global significance where the news spread rapidly on Twitter – this time the Mumbai terror attacks

Go to CJR to read their brief introduction to what is more of a newsroom discussion being conducted in the comments. There are some good points made.

This is my initial reaction…
Online news has been in various places (including the recent MEAA Future of Journalism report) described as more “event-driven”, with a lack of analysis that has formerly balanced out the print edition. I disagree that all news has been balanced in that way.

“a reporter showed up from an outlet thatshall remain nameless asking about an incident that happened 20 minutes earlier and four blocks away. …Local MSM: either figure itout or die trying.”

The nightly broadcast TV news has always been event-driven, as has the hourly bulletin radio news. Deeper analysis has been left to long-form programs with a focus on investigation. With that in mind I say that yes, like other forms of news, Twitter is event-driven. It conveys the immediacy of what is happening in the form of live text updates but it is just that, one form, one medium of choice to convey information. It is a form that is useful in lieu of other forms that may be preferable, like live vision (via TV or web streaming), or at length descriptions of events that have unfolded so far, and explanations of the circumstances surrounding an event.

In the comments at CJR, many people are worried about the face value with which Twitter updates might influence a reporter’s understanding of an event, while others rightly say it should be treated much the same as a member of the public calling something in – it needs to be able to be verified. Just like local contacts, however, a journalist can also be building up trusted social networking contacts, whose news tips or inside word a journalist might be willing to accept at face value.

Journalists have never underestimated the value of sources, and social networking sources should be treated the same. Digital media may have created a different world to one most journalists are familiar with, but some things remain the same – journalists have contacts they regularly communicate with, with whom they build relationships. There may be casual contacts who only occasionally pass on an interesting bit of news, and then others with more clout who are an immense help to getting an inside story. With a vast array of experts and contacts available online, particularly through social networks, Twitter is just one of those essential tools.

But I digress.

Journalists should use Twitter:

  • to find contacts
  • to maintain and communicate with contacts and their audience
  • to monitor keywords relevant to their round (their beat, for my American friends)
  • to monitor updates around a specific geographic location.

A journalist might want to monitor Twitter updates by location to be aware of anything significant mentioned in their local area (like an emergency), or because a significant event will be taking place in a specific location, like the Republican National Convention.

I mention that because one of the best things I read recently about the possible use of Twitter as an “event-driven” source was its use at the RNC, and how mainstream media was left far behind.

In a Poynter post a few months ago, Twitter: Surprise Star of RNC Coverage, two quotes stood out.

Albert Maruggi observed: “[Twitter is] the police scanner of 21st century newsroom. This from a guy that used to rewrite AP copy for 11pm newscast.”

Currently assigned to the enviable police desk reporting round, I enjoyed this analogy. Like a scanner, Twitter is a non-stop flow of information; if your ear isn’t attuned, or you’re not listening to the right frequency, you could easily miss a big story in all the static.

The second quote in the Poynter piece on Twitter was from “One local resident, Minneapolis Michael,” who said on Tumblr, in a post titled, How Twitter changed my RNC experience:

“…Every local media outlet needs to do what the Pioneer Press is doing. By using their Twitter account as a place to post links to stories and place them in context, it gives me a credible local source AND they are looked upon favorably by the Twitterverse.
I will leave you with one anecdotal piece of evidence: As I was at a street corner downtown Saint Paul checking my feed to see where the next hotspot was, a reporter showed up from an outlet thatshall remain nameless asking about an incident that happened 20 minutes earlier and four blocks away. …Local MSM: either figure itout or die trying.”

In future posts I plan to expand on some of the ways I use social networking – particularly Twitter – as a journalist, and some of the tools that help in that use.

What I worry about is when an over-enthusiastic marketer, or just someone out to wreak havoc, executes a coordinated “Twitter attack” designed to play the mainstream media for a fool. How long till we see the first fake emergency or breaking news scam go worldwide in a matter of minutes through Twitter?


10 Responses to “How journalists should use Twitter”
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  7. Dave says:

    First, to everyone, I should point out the general idea espoused in this post can be extrapolated to any social networking platform. While I am a heavy Twitter user, I am trying to build up connections elsewhere because Twitter is still gradually – major emergency by major emergency – entering the mainstream consciousness.

    @Tara – Thanks so much for making the effort for a thought out reply! :)
    Should ‘journalistic’ standards apply to re-tweeting? As a conversation, there is certainly trust involved, but someone would have to put in an inordinate amount of effort to gain that trust if their profile was fake, and their grand plan was simply to attempt a hoax emergency via Twitter.

    Originally I was thinking you would need a coordinated group of people to launch a timed torrent of tweets…but realise it could be done by a single person.

    Services like Tweetlater, allowing people to ‘schedule’ tweets, could allow a single person with a well-executed plan to set up a myriad of fake users, before simply sitting back and watching the ‘carnage’ unfold.

    I shouldn’t give anyone ideas, and it’s a highly hypothetical situation, but again comes back to your question of “journalistic standards” simply in re-tweeting someone else. I think general online etiquette applies – be wary of cold calls from people you’ve never met before. Trust your contacts and sources :)

  8. Especially liked your last observation: “How long till we see the first fake emergency or breaking news scam go worldwide in a matter of minutes through Twitter?”

    Now that I follow more than 100 people, it’s interesting to see how quickly and how widespread a newsy item pops up.

    A ‘harmless’ example is the spontaneous re-enactment of Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” #wotw2. (you might trick me once, I won’t let you trick me twice)

    Most people don’t use journalistic standards to re-tweet, nor should they be expected to because part of the attraction is that it’s not limited by those conventions.

    It’d be easy to abuse the high level of trust Twitter users currently have, so you’ve posted a timely warning. Reckon it is just a matter of time.


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  1. […] the way, have a read on how journalists can use Twitter over at  EarleyEdition. And you can check out how long they have been on Twitter by typing WHOIS SILKCHARM (or whatevs) […]

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