Twittering Away the Jobs of Journalists

    by Paul Lamb
    June 17, 2009

    Jon Steward did a funny bit last night, referencing how the major news networks were forced to rely on the “hearsay” of Twitter and Facebook postings to understand the events unfolding in Iran.

    But with the State Department requesting that the good folks at Twitter delay their scheduled site maintenance to keep Tweets flowinng from Iran, you know we have turned a corner.

    So in all seriousness, in the era of twittering and crowdsourced journalism, are journalists themselves still relevant? Obviously I am not the first person to ask this – or to piss people off by asking it again. But it needs to addressed squarely and honestly. And it has nothing to do with the importance of the profession and the need for quality reporting and information. Rather, it has to do with the benefits of collective reporting. Going back to James Surowieki’s supposition in the Wisdom of Crowds, the decisions made by, by a diverse group of people is better than the the decisions made by the smartest “experts” in that group. Applying that to journalism it means that journalists, as the smartest or most informed of the investigating group, will provide less accurate and useful information than an aggregation of the input of spectators and citizen journalists. It’s the same principle behind statistical analysis and surveying – the bigger the sample the more accurate the results.


    Obviously journalists are already using Twitter and a plethora of other social media tools to gather information and accumulate a larger sampling of insights and information. But why couldn’t we simply develop a smarter aggregation and filtering tool to replace journalists altogether? Wouldn’t that ultimately remove the biases and limited experience that reporters have on a particular subject? One could even argue that journalists are perhaps the least qualified to report on an issue because of a lack of relevant expertise or direct experience. So why not let the crowd, including far more knowledgable experts, chime in to get us the best possible information?

    Let’s use an example. On a college campus the rumor mill churns out a constant “feed” of stories about who did what, who is sleeping with whom, etc. Those spreading the rumors without having had first hand knowledge, much like uninformed journalists, are getting it wrong. But by tapping into the collective intelligence of many students, some with relevant information and some without, a richer and more accurate story can emerge. Facebook and other social networking and information aggregation tools (i.e., Truemors) are a very rough move in this direction.

    As the next generation “smart” or semantic Web comes online, with much of our individual and collective information made publicly available, one would assume that the need for human aggregators and interpreters becomes less and less useful. And in fact crowdsourced information becomes much more reliable than any one individual perspective, be it from interviewing a handful of experts or bystanders, or not.


    Is there still a need for vetting and fact checking of stories. Absolutely. But isn’t that something a machine, building off our collective intelligence, could be trained to do far better than any one human or editorial staff? Of course this ignores the fact that machines aren’t good at storytelling or understanding the nuances of human emotions and interactions – that which makes for good reporting and journalism. But maybe that’s something the machine could be taught as well? Maybe even doing it better than the tired old formulas used in most mainstream reporting?

    In the meantime, and although I hate to say it, it is likely that journalists will see their jobs flittering, or rather Twittering, away.

    If Craigslist killed the classifieds, its not unlikely that Twitter and its ilk could just as easily put another nail in the coffin of professional journalism.

    P.S. Feel free to Twitter any responses to plamb.

    Tagged: cnn elections iran jon stewart journalism reporting Truemors twitter
    • Paul,
      I disagree with your thesis here. I don’t believe an algorithm or aggregator will come along that will actually replace editors or journalists. Reading Twitter is like looking at a sea of information and misinformation. Who do you trust? We need some kind of filtering of that information and I doubt seriously that an automated computer system will be able to do that. It will take automation coupled with human judgment and editing.

    • I’ve been struck at the helplessness of Tehran-based reporters unable to leave their offices — and now banished from Iran altogether — while locals and protestors are relaying the news via Twitter and other Web sources.

      But to follow on Mark’s comments, I would add that the exercising of news judgment is inherently part of the “vetting and fact checking” process and simply cannot be automated or done by a machine.

      And we’re a long way from the Semantic Web taking root as you suggest.

      It’s been very easy to get swept up in the euphoria over how Twitter has been used to get the word out in Iran. But experienced journalists who know how to vet and curate information on the Web, and then present it to the public, could be indispensable if smart news organizations recognize the value of that skill.

    • Mark & Wendy: good points all! I guess I’m just thinking out loud about the value of (and possibilities for) journalism in this day and age. No doubt we are far from the kind of automation that I spoke of, but what happens when we aren’t?

      Should journalists start thinking of how else they can add value beyond reporting and and storytelling? Maybe they will need to become social organizers and connectors of sorts?

    • Paul, I think you’re right in your comment that journalists need to think beyond storytelling and reporting, but that is part of a bigger crying need for us in the news industry to think harder about how we report, write and convey the news, and, indeed, what constitutes news.

      In the case of Tehran, it’s a complex picture. Reporting political upheaval is difficult at the best of times, and Iran is not the first time that crowd-sourced news has done a better job of capturing an overall picture–of what is visible.

      But reporting is also about uncovering the hidden information–the behind-the-scenes struggle, and I’ve not seen anything either on twitter or, frankly, in mainstream media, that’s captured that more difficult part of the story.

      Smart media practitioners will learn from this lesson, not only that they can out-source to the crowd some of the ‘public’ events, but that their value lies in better reporting the ‘private’ events, those that go on behind closed doors.

      We need to move with the times, and see as a positive development the emergence of tools that create a more comprehensive picture of mass events like this. After all, we’re supposed to be in the business of bringing light to the dark corners, and this could so easily have been–and may yet be–one of the darkest of recent times.

    • Jeremy: Well said, and in a much more balanced and nuanced way than I have presented!

    • Alicia Williams

      Twitter posts are just tips, assumptions and factoids, not a journalism. Unfortunately, the internet seems to be a place where lots of people think they are journalists, and spew things they “know” without any attempt to check their facts.

      For example: Who is Jon Steward?

    • Alicia: I beg to differ…as this week’s “coverage” of the protests in Iran demonstrated. Sure there is still a critical need for vetting and fact checking, but couldn’t journalists make better use of their time?

      As for Jon Steward, I just Googled him and some comedian named Jon Stewart came, which seems to suggest that vetting can perhaps be done just as easily online by anyone and not just by journalists???

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