Twitter became big news once journalists realized its power as a tool for breaking stories during the Mumbai Massacre in 2008. In the aftermath of the micro-blogging platform hitting the headlines, there was an explosion of professional journalists in the Twittersphere. This growth has been fueled 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 news dissemination, citizen journalism and audience interaction.
So, how are journalists using Twitter? How is the service changing traditional reporting practices and what (if any) are the rules of engagement with the platform for professional journalists? I interviewed 25 of the journalists I follow on Twitter (most of them Australian with a smattering of South African and U.S. respondents) to find out first-hand.
This is the first installment in a two-part MediaShift series on the theme of journalists and Twitter.
In Australia, where journalists are literally in a Twittering frenzy, the platform was incorporated into mainstream news coverage of the Black Saturday bushfires# which devastated the southern state of Victoria in February. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), where I used to work, pioneered the use of the technology during the disaster with impressive results.
And last week, during violent storms and flooding in the states of Queensland and New South Wales (NSW), it was evident how embedded Twitter had become as a component of ABC radio’s breaking news coverage. Reporters from remote regions through to network stars and even the corporation’s Managing Director are Tweeting their way into unprecedented public engagement. As Leigh Sales, anchor of the respected nightly news program Lateline, told me: “I’m giving Twitter a red hot go.”
But as I watched my Twitter-feed flood with news of the deadly storms, I saw something else racing up the trending topics chart: the London industry gathering #media140 called to discuss the role of Twitter in breaking news. Inevitably, the debate canvassed the views of resistors and detractors who argued “Twitter isn’t journalism.” Sound familiar to veterans of the great blogging vs. journalism debate? Of course Twitter isn’t journalism, it’s a platform like radio or TV but with unfettered interactivity. However, the act of tweeting can be as journalistic as the act of headline writing. Similarly, the platform can be used for real-time reporting by professional journalists in a manner as kosher as a broadcast news live report.
Evidence of resistance was also broadcast in Australia this month on the national ABC radio program Life Matters. In an episode devoted to the impact of social media, host Richard Aedy declared himself a skeptic and said he didn’t see the point of platforms like Twitter. He found some support within his audience — an older, educated, affluent crowd (disclaimer: I’m a regular listener!). But many called the program to describe how social media such as Twitter could be useful social connectors and information sources. While one of his guests (@iggypintado) plugged the virtues of Twitter, another, respected veteran science broadcaster Robin Williams dismissed the platform, proudly telling listeners he was very connected and yet didn’t even have a mobile phone.
However, the producers invited listeners to participate in the discussion via Twitter and the experiment was a success. Twitter users — some of whom had never previously heard the program — tweeted their way through it, posting hundreds of comments and making an impression on the skeptical host. I was invited to appear on the next edition of the program to discuss the Twitter political reporting experiment I conducted last September with my students and the emerging role of Twitter in journalism. By that stage, there was less “But isn’t it just inane public belly-gazing” and more “It strikes me this is a little like citizen journalism,” which was good to hear as the program’s weekly talkback sessions are a natural bridge to social media enhancement and potentially a younger, expanded audience.
Nevertheless, Twitter (in conjunction with other social media platforms) is changing journalism and these changes need to be carefully scrutinized with open minds.
How do journalists identify themselves on Twitter?
Most of the journalists I interviewed tweet openly, acknowledging their professional identity and real name in their personal Twitter page biographies, even if they use an online nickname. Only one locked his account, meaning he had to approve potential followers before they would be able to view his tweets. However, several deliberately withheld the name of their employer to avoid perceived conflicts of interest.
But the themes of trust and credibility, honesty and transparency came up constantly as significant features of successful social media engagement and most of the journalists I interviewed had connected the dots.
“Because I use Twitter to source content (and) find news tips, I think it’s best to be open about where I’m coming from,” said Gary Kemble, the ABC’s Online Opinion Editor. He’s also responsible for the broadcaster’s @abcnews and @abcarticulate Twitter feeds.
The ABC’s national youth affairs correspondent, Michael Turtle agreed.
“I think the very nature of Twitter lends itself towards having an open profile and being honest about who you are,” he said. “The power of the site is the ability to connect directly with people and engage in conversations. It wouldn’t be nearly as effective if you chose to do that anonymously.”
When asked why he tweeted openly, John Grey, online editor of the Murdoch-owned Brisbane Courier Mail, said: “Call me wacky, call me weird, but I think people are more likely to have an interactive relationship with a human rather than a bot.”
Freelance journalist Rachel Hills acknowledged her upfront tweeting as being consistent with the need for interactivity between the reporter and the audience in the digital age.
“I have adopted this relatively open approach because I view the future of media (or at least the kind of ideas and issues based work that I do as a freelancer) as being about hosting and facilitating conversations — interacting with the people who care about the work that you do is vital,” she said.
However, ABC Adelaide news reader and producer, Jacqui Munn reflected the caution that some journalists feel about the merger of the private and the public that occurs in social media spaces like the Twittersphere. She switched from tweeting openly to anonymously once her journalistic identity was revealed.
“I wasn’t looking to use it to communicate as a journalist and didn’t feel comfortable being judged professionally for just shooting the breeze with friends and other somewhat anonymous acquaintances,” Munn said.
How are journalists using Twitter?
Professional journalists are using Twitter to enhance and augment traditional reporting practices. It’s another tool in their kit and many journalists, like ABC radio producer Andrew Davies, are now logged onto Twitter throughout their working day.
“I try and start my day by looking at what people are saying (and) talking about on Twitter,” he said, “I love being able to read all the fantastic links to interesting websites, ideas (and) news that people have sent out.”
Reporters I interviewed are using the platform to “broadcast” links to content they or their news outlet have produced in an effort to build a new audience. Some also contribute to or manage organizational Twitter accounts on behalf of their employers. A few use it as a live reporting platform and some employ applications to share images, audio and links to other online content they find interesting. Many are using it to crowdsource contacts, story angles, background and case studies. In fact, when I began researching this story, my first move was to tweet a request for journalists to respond to questions about why they were on Twitter and how they used the platform. I received useful feedback and uncovered a number of new contacts via this method before conducting more extensive online interviews.
The ABC’s Michael Turtle uses Twitter regularly to monitor public debate which he acknowledges influences his storytelling.
“It sometimes helps to use Twitter to gauge opinion on an issue,” Turtle said. “You would certainly never claim the views online are representative, or seek to pass off a collection of tweets as an accurate poll. But it can point you in the direction of certain views, which can help guide some of the questions you might ask or angles you might follow-up.”
Most journalists I interviewed monitor the feeds of sources on their beats as an adjunct to website and email accounts. They check their competition and try to keep up to date with hot industry issues. For some, it’s replaced their RSS news feeds and for others it’s a way of networking with peers and developing mentors. It’s the end-of-day bar debriefing and a reporting tool rolled into one.
Journalists Marketing Themselves
As journalism and entertainment continue to merge, and reporters increasingly become media personalities, image conscious journalists are gaining awareness of Twitter’s power as a branding and marketing tool. This is paramount in the mind of the ABC’s Leigh Sales who has developed an Australian Twittersphere cult-following with a unique blend of news and wit. She says the jury is still out on the real value of Twitter to her.
“It’s hard to see the application for me, given that I only have 1,000 or so followers, yet my program rates around 300k.” But she pointed to the potential value of such a following in marketing her books.
However, journalists are also beginning to see the value in using Twitter to interact with their audiences, recognizing the inevitable breakdown of old media strictures that separated news producers and receivers and reinforced a top-down approach to media consumption.
“Like other broadcasters and newspapers, we use Twitter to alert others to new stories and to invite feedback — but we don’t believe it should stop there,” observed Sky News Australia deputy director of digital news John Bergin. “Our strategy doesn’t think of the viewer ‘out there’ spatially and conceptually. One of the most interesting things about Twitter is that there is no strictly defined audience. Every participant has the same tools to articulate his or her point, to frame an issue, to set an agenda. The space between news producer and news consumer has collapsed. We try to use Twitter as a means of inviting them into the newsroom, asking them what they think, what questions they would like us to ask our guests, and so forth.”
Subverting PR and Getting Jobs
Some journalists also reported using Twitter as a means of subverting the increasingly dominant modern PR machine. They said it allowed them to quickly go beyond press releases and official sources, like lobby groups and politicians, by interacting with followers who provided alternative perspectives, useful background and sometimes crucial facts in a story.
Finally, the journalists I interviewed mentioned the role of Twitter as a sort of media job agency. The Sydney Star Observer’s Harley Dennett highlighted the value of networking with senior journalists and editors at major Australian publications on Twitter.
“I comment on news of the day hoping potential future employers will notice how witty and informed I am,” he said.
This strategy worked for one U.S. college graduate. After initially failing to make an impression via email, Ashley Reynolds direct-messaged via Twitter the News Director at WYMT TV (http://www.wkyt.com/wymtnews) in Hazard, Kentucky. It worked. He replied via Twitter, set up an interview and she’s about to start work as a reporter on his news team.
“As far as I know, I’m the only one who contacted him through Twitter, so I really stood out,” she said. “With direct message you have to sell yourself in 140 characters. So in order to sell myself I had to be short, sharp, and simple.”
Breaking news in Twitter
In addition to using Twitter to monitor breaking news — like a mini wire service with public participation — and for the dissemination of breaking news, the ABC has also assigned reporters to live-tweet events, such as the Queensland state election this March.
Other reporters interviewed pointed to the value of Twitter search — a function which allows users to search on specific terms or phrases which are often grouped by relevant hashtags — to easily monitor community reporting of major breaking news. They also pointed to recent moves by public officials to release news via Twitter ahead of issuing press releases or staging media conferences. This means Twitter is being used not only as a place to cover and monitor breaking news, but also a place for sources to break news.
But the public is less likely to trust news broken on Twitter than that which is delivered via traditional news outlets according to Harley Dennett, who says audiences still attach credibility to detail as he discovered when he broke a story on Twitter recently about the closure of the Federal Magistrate’s Court in Sydney.
“Sometimes people don’t believe me when I reveal something on Twitter before the full story, with supporting quotes and documentation, comes out in print or online,” he said. “It’s hard to prove something in 140 characters when there’s nothing to link.”
Journalists would be wise to exercise similar caution, as two stories from Sydney this past fortnight demonstrate. In the first instance, a journalist writing for the online publication Crikey attacked Sydney Morning Herald technology reporter, Asher Moses (who did not respond to a request for an interview) for inappropriate tweeting. Crikey was later forced to apologize when it was revealed that some of the offending tweets actually came from a fake Twitter account.
In the second incident, it was revealed that a marketing company had been tweeting under the guise of the NSW Police Service about policies and crime in a social media experiment inspired by Barack Obama’s use of Twitter in his 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. The @nswpolice Twitter account had attracted 2,000 followers and forced a disgruntled police media unit to tweet under another handle before Twitter shut down the imposter site.
In the next installment of this two part series on journalists’ engagement with Twitter, I’ll look at the implications of the clash between the personal and the public in the Twittersphere along with the regulation of reporters’ tweeting by their employers and the ways in which Twitter is altering traditional practice. I’ll also provide a list of tips for journalists starting out on Twitter, crowdsourced from those already active in the space.
Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She’s been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.