Jul 9, 2009

What's the use?

In this month's American Journalism Review, Paul Farhi considers the good, bad and ugly of Twitter as a tool for journalists.

He writes:

News organizations and reporters have been quick to adopt Twitter for an obvious reason: Its speed and brevity make it ideal for pushing out scoops and breaking news to Twitter-savvy readers. The Oregonian in Portland may have been the mainstream media pioneer in this regard; it began posting its own links and aggregating citizen tweets about flooding and road closures during heavy storms in central Oregon in late 2007, when Twitter barely had 500,000 users nationwide. Other newspapers have subsequently used Twitter to post swift-changing updates following natural disasters in their areas.

Reporters now routinely tweet from all kinds of events – speeches, meetings and conferences, sports events. In February, a federal judge gave his blessing to Ron Sylvester of the Wichita Eagle to use Twitter to report on a trial of six suspected gang members, the first time tweeting had been permitted inside a federal courtroom. Sylvester tweeted frequently from the trial, providing a nearly contemporaneous account. On the other hand, not all tweets are equally useful. Tweets from reporters covering the heavily choreographed political conventions last summer produced plenty of snark and trivia, but little in the way of important or interesting news.

Once a Twitter user has developed a reputation as a news source, that person will inevitably have to take more care - or suffer the consequences. Farhi continues:

In late March, Washington Post book critic Ron Charles tweeted a juicy tidbit from a conversation he'd had with an unnamed source: "Frequent contributor tells me the New Yorker is considering switch to biweekly or monthly. Recession pains."

A scoop? Nope. "I just threw it out there," Charles says. "It was a careless, journalistically irresponsible thing to do." Within 10 minutes, he says, "it seemed like the whole Internet went crazy. It was terrifying."

When Charles was reliably informed via e-mail a few minutes later that his tip was wrong, he sent out another tweet knocking down his original post. But by then Charles' comment had been retweeted by others, and the story was out there. Reporters from the Chicago Reader and New York Observer quickly picked up on it, drawing full denials from New Yorker Editor David Remnick.

Charles says his original message was "naïve" and that he shouldn't have spread a rumor. But as he points out, that's not the end of it. With their intimacy and immediacy, social networks can put journalists in murky territory: "Am I a reporter [when tweeting]? Am I an editor? Am I a critic? Or am I just talking among friends?"

These last questions get at the heart of the matter. Twitter is a communication tool and, like other communication tools, it can be used for a variety of purposes. It's up to the users to define its use because the platform isn't going to do that for them. Sometimes it's social, sometimes it's media, sometimes it's personal, sometimes professional. Over time, we're bound to develop common-sense rules, just as we have with email and cell phones and our own mouths - judging when to speak and what to say depending on the circumstances.

(h/t fishbowlLA)

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