Twitter is transforming journalism - 140 characters at a time. But as Julie Posetti reports, the micro-blogging platform brings with it professional pitfalls and highlights ethical dilemmas.
Barack Obama put Twitter on the media map when he made it part of his successful digital election strategy in 2007. But the phenomenally popular micro-blogging platform, which now has over 10 million users worldwide, became big news once the media realised its power as a tool for covering breaking news during the Mumbai massacre in 2008, after which there was an explosion of professional journalists in the Twittersphere.
This growth has been fuelled by increasing mainstream awareness of the importance of social media to the future of a crisis-ridden industry and the elevation of Twitter as a platform for reporting, news dissemination, citizen journalism and audience interaction. The latter strategy aims to break down the barriers between news producers and consumers. But as much as Twitter is becoming an essential tool in a reporter’s kitbag, there are significant pitfalls and ethical dilemmas that journalists need to navigate in the space.
I have been researching the ways in which journalists and traditional media outlets are using Twitter and exploring the ethical dilemmas raised by the clash of the personal and the professional for journalists in the sphere, while considering the rules of engagement for tweeting reporters. As part of this research, I surveyed 25 professional journalists on Twitter from Australia, South Africa and the US and analysed their responses.
My key conclusion: reporters need to be space-invaders in the Twittersphere. It has three main media functions: breaking and disseminating news; crowdsourcing news and contacts; and audience engagement.
And while I don’t regard Twitter as the salvation of professional journalism, neither do I see it as a threat. Rather, I view tweeting as one of the new skills journalists need to extend their professional practice. I believe Twitter is an essential venue for media outlets seeking to build new audiences and remain relevant as traditional audiences tune out.
In addition to disseminating their stories, covering and tracking breaking news via Twitter, journalists are using it to crowd-source case studies and sources and market their own journalistic brand, while aiming to build potential new audiences through engagement with followers.
Some Twitter advocates believe the platform is a crucial feature of the defensive strategy in the struggle to preserve professional journalism. But there are still barriers to journalists’ active participation in the Twittersphere. There are the practical realities like limited online access in developing countries, of course, but other impediments are a product of resistant mindsets among journalists and their employers.
Some resistors view Twitter as threatening and dangerous. Detractors have argued that it is either another weapon in the ongoing war against professional journalism which threatens to sink the fourth estate, or a symptom of its demise.
In echoes of the great Blogging vs Journalism debate you may hear them say “Twitter isn’t journalism”. No, of course it’s not; it’s a platform, like radio or TV, yet with unfettered interactivity. But the act of tweeting can be as journalistic as the act of headline writing. Similarly, Twitter can be used for real-time reporting by professional journalists in a manner as kosher as a broadcast live cross.
While some media outlets are making tweeting close to compulsory for their reporters, the most resistant are either so afraid of Twitter, or so disdainful of its journalistic potential, that they’ve tried to bar their journalists from even accessing it in the workplace.
As Twitter becomes entrenched in daily reporting practice, it would seem appropriate for media organisations to update existing editorial guidelines to make them relevant to social media platforms like Twitter. But if they want to bank on the significant benefits that can flow from their participation in the Twittersphere – such as developing new audiences and enhancing traffic to their websites – they will need to ensure their journalists have unfettered access to the site and also be flexible about interactions in the space.
The ABC is pursuing such a balanced policy, while most other Australian media outlets are lagging behind. At the time of writing, The Australian Financial Review announced an extremely conservative and, in my view, retrogressive social media policy which effectively bans the newspaper’s journalists from tweeting professionally.
Many of the media workers I interviewed underlined the importance of journalists actively interacting with their followers, rather than just eavesdropping. “To dig any deeper than 140 characters requires engagement,” said The Courier-Mail’s Dave Earley. “This requires you to be a real person, start building real relationships, gradually trust, and then contacts. Twitter can start being more helpful to journalists specifically when those contacts start passing on news tips to you directly.”
But reporters’ use of the platform to express feelings and opinions on a range of issues has raised red flags about professional conduct and bias, although – paradoxically – it can humanise journalists to their audiences, potentially making their work more appealing.
Wotnews.com editor Gen Robey believes keeping the personal and professional separate is increasingly difficult when you’re trying to maximise the benefits of communities like Twitter: “The overlapping of the personal and professional, and thus emphasis on trust and meaningful relationships, is often what makes Twitter so powerful,” Robey said.
Some of the journalists I interviewed tackled this dilemma by choosing to separate the personal and professional spheres of their lives – tweeting only “on-the-job” or “off-the-clock”, for example. Others included a disclaimer indicating the views they expressed via Twitter were their own. Some didn’t mention their employers and a couple tweeted anonymously, but most openly identified themselves and their professional status. This reflects a broad understanding of the importance of openness and transparency within socialmedia communities and the professional requirements of information- gathering for reporting purposes which demand identification. Twitter also exposes society’s scrutineers to the same scrutiny they’re used to reserving for the subjects of their stories. And, as some journalists have discovered, that can be a chastening experience.
One reporter who’s been forced to reassess his use of Twitter as a public platform for his views is The Sydney Morning Herald’s Asher Moses. Moses was caught up in a Twitter scandal after making comments about the New Zealand woman who levelled sexual assault allegations against Sharks rugby league players: “Although I wrote the tweet in my own time on a personal Twitter account ... I used two words [“slutty groupy”] 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,” Moses 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.”
While not endorsing Moses’ views, Jason Whittaker of Australian Consolidated Press defends his right as a journalist to tweet his opinions and indulge in news commentary. He maintains a Twitter account which showcases his opinions, blending the personal and the professional: “Do journalists who use Twitter have to be mindful of being in the public domain and project the same perception of objectivity as they do on the clock as a journalist?” Whittaker asks. “Even if they’re commenting on matters they have nothing to do with as a journalist? Are readers capable of making the distinction? Can’t they accept journos are not mindless drones and do have opinions, but this doesn’t mean they can’t do the job as an objective observer when on the clock?”
But other journalists interviewed preferred to avoid commenting on sensitive issues altogether, to escape perceptions of bias. John Bergin, deputy digital editor at Sky News, had this advice for balancing the personal and the professional: “Think carefully about what ‘hat’ you’re wearing when you share personal opinions and political views – is it clear to others that you are speaking on behalf of yourself, or your employer?
“If you express an opinion on a news story, think about how this will be construed if you are then required to report on ‘the facts’ of the same issue at a later date.” Bergin also spoke of the need to apply basic media-law training to tweeting and to display respect for colleagues.
Twitter’s impact on traditional news services was demonstrated during the Iranian uprising in June this year. But as reporters relied on Twitter as a means of crowd-sourcing coverage in a zone from which most Western journalists had been banished, it also highlighted some of the key dilemmas faced by professional reporters in the Twittersphere. At the centre of these struggles is the core journalistic value of truth.
When I raised concerns on Twitter about the practice of tweeters who openly identify as professional journalists re-tweeting (or RT) – re-publishing someone else’s tweet – without verification, in the context of the flood of tweets supposedly emanating from Iran, I found myself engaged in a lively discussion. I asserted that when Patrick LaForge, an editor at The New York Times, re-tweeted (without acknowledgement of verification or absence thereof) a third-hand list of Iranian tweeters, it amounted to an acknowledgement of the authenticity of that list. But LaForge disagreed.
Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, then reminded me not to expect open systems like Twitter to behave in the same manner expected of editorial systems.
However, while I agree with Rosen, my concern wasn’t directed at the unmediated Twittersphere. Rather, it was directed at the way journalists approach this flood of information. I’m of the view that professional journalists will be judged more harshly if they RT content which later proves to be false – particularly in the context of a crisis. This goes to their professional credibility and their employer’s. Therefore, while I wouldn’t suggest journalists step back from reporting on social media contributions flowing from zones like Iran, I do think they need to critically assess information to the best of their capacity before republishing it and, if there’s no way to do so, flag this with “unconfirmed” or some other abbreviated signal (e.g. U/C) that the information has not been substantiated by the journalist. The issues at stake here partly evolve from Twitter’s speed imperative, which encourages us to “file” instantly, sometimes without enough thought for the public nature of the platform. It’s very easy to get “Twitter-happy” and post without fear of the consequences.
There remain significant questions which need to be considered as Twitter becomes a feature of everyday reporting in many newsrooms. For example, how much of an additional burden is daily tweeting and audience engagement on already overloaded journalists? And what’s the impact of constant tweeting on their capacity to produce original, quality journalism? There needs to be further discussion between media professionals, their employers, journalism academics and social media experts to help navigate this complex territory. Journalists and media outlets can no longer afford to simply ignore Twitter: it’s no fleeting trend.
The impact of Twitter on journalism and the opportunities it presents will be considered at the Media140 conference, at the ABC Centre in Sydney on November 5. It will bring together professional journalists, social media practitioners and academics to discuss the theme: “The Future of Journalism in the Social Media Age”. The Alliance is a partner in this event and discounts are available to members. Register
Julie Posetti is an award-winning former ABC journalist and Walkley finalist who lectures in journalism at the University of Canberra. She blogs at www.j-scribe.com and can be found on Twitter as @julie_posetti
Reg Lynch is a freelance cartoonist
Top 20 takeaway tips for tweeting journos
- Think before you tweet – you can’t delete an indiscreet tweet!
- Think carefully about what you’re RTing and acknowledge if it’s unsubstantiated.
- Be an active twit: tweet daily if you want your followers to stick.
- Determine your Twitter identity.
- Be human; be honest; be open; be active.
- Don’t lock your account if you want to use Twitter for reporting purposes – this fosters distrust.
- Twitter is a community, not a one-way conversation or broadcast channel – actively engage.
- Check whether your employer has a social media policy.
- Be cautious when tweeting about your employer/workplace/colleagues.
- Be a judicious follower – don’t be stingy, but avoid following everyone as your list grows.
- If you quote a tweet, attribute it.
- Expect your competitors to steal your leads if you tweet about them.
- Don’t tweet while angry or drunk.
- Avoid racist, sexist, bigoted and otherwise offensive tweets and never abuse a follower.
- Scrutinise crowd-sourced stories closely.
- Find people to follow and foster followers by pilfering the lists of other “twits”.
- Twitter is a “time vampire” (to quote twit @anne_brand). You don’t need to keep track of all tweets – dip in and out through the day.
- Prevent information overload by using an application such as Tweetdeck.
- Set up your internet-enabled mobile device so you can live-tweet on the road.
- Value-add your tweets with links, Twitpic and other applications for audio and video.