Twitter journalism

by

NEU School of JournalismBy Stephen Burgard

The web blog Xark is dedicated to the idea that “breaking out of our conceptual ruts is generally a good thing.” Its founder and former newspaper feature writer, Dan Conover, had the mainstream media in his sights in a recent post forwarded by one of my students.

He wrote,

“The great gray battleships of 20th-century media are sinking, and the social web is adapting rapidly to fill the spaces they’ll vacate. Journalists are in the communications business. Shouldn’t they at least have a professional interest in the evolving state of modern communications technology? Shouldn’t journalists at least be curious about the way other people communicate? “

The answer is yes, but it cuts both ways because when the press pays attention to you, the result may be something different from what you bargained for. Many journalists by now are getting the idea that the social networks are fertile mining ground for newsworthy information. In fact, it was a Columbia Journalism Review online “News Meeting” item of Dec. 2 that got Dan’s attention. The CJR piece considered the significance of the recent Mumbai story, with its stream of Twitter bulletins from a world away. Attention from a press monitor, and also from the New York Times, indicated that the journalism establishment was coming to terms with questions like the one CJR asked: “Is Twitter anything more than just a stupid human trick?”

There are bloggers who think traditional media are so far behind the curve that they display their hopeless ignorance by asking such questions. But it would be a mistake to underestimate what it means when journalists join a discussion this important, and begin to get up to speed on trends and habits. This is, after all, something that they tend to be very good and practiced at. The question is not whether they will catch on and pay attention. That’s already happening. Rather, it’s how they use the information once they plug in, and what their inevitable “professional interest in the evolving state of modern communications technology” will mean as they infiltrate this new tract of the public domain.

The social networks have their own set of conventions, which is some ways puts them on a collision course with the press’s mission of shedding light in new and interesting places. Facebook and Twitter are open and inviting, but they also are designed to be quasi-private because of their unique culture. My teenage sons got me thinking about this when they informed me that Facebook was about conversation and not about information gathering. To log on to find out things, as curious reporters normally do when they search anywhere to pry loose information, seemed to them a form of voyeurism. In a matchup of Baby Boomer v. Millennial generation values systems, we have the possibility that one person’s virtue, finding out what’s going on in a new dimension of the public realm, can be another’s creepy behavior.

The implications get more interesting when the conversation and profiles involve people who are in the news, or are public officials. Ahead of us now lies an emerging generation of public figures who are digitally engaged and network-savvy. Anyone who doubts this should examine the difference between the attention put into profiles on Facebook during the election of 2008 by the presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain.

In the future, having news makers or people thrust by events into the news profiled and active on the networks will mean that reporters will be sifting through micro-information. What they find can be as innocuous as what someone had for breakfast, or as potentially significant as the name of the person they had it with.  It all has to do with revelations made, pictures posted, and dots to be connected, especially if these things come from people who are newsworthy, or are engaged in the public’s business.

At some point, we could have a social-networked mayor who reveals his inner self by illustrating Dan’s point that “on Planet Facebook, nothing in one’s life is not worth mentioning.” If we modify one example of Twitter talk that Dan uses in his Xark post, and apply it to this imaginary public official, we can come up with something like this: “I am soooooo never drinking martinis again right before the vote on a new police chief!” Or we might read first on Twitter the kind of conversation later reported in an FBI affidavit about a governor’s effort to persuade Tribune Co. to throw an editorial writer under the bus.

For journalists and public information advocates, the question won’t be, “Should we be there?” It will be, “Is what we are seeing true, and can we make it public without violating someone’s legitimate privacy?” Some newsrooms already have these conversations, with their new twists on old discussions about verification methods, how reporters represent themselves, and what to make of access to people’s unguarded moments.

One guiding star for the new world seems to be that if people did not want it known, they should not have put it up there. This is a variation on the old idea that if you go public, then you get public review and scrutiny.  The news clips are full of disgraced politicians who found this out the hard way during a time in press history when the world was still a blogger’s void.

Stephen Burgard is the director of Northeastern University’s school of journalism.

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