Twitter: Journalists’ best friend and journalism’s worst enemy

This column was published by J-Source on December 12, 2011. It created considerable buzz and controversy in the Twitterverse as well as on OpenFile.


As a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University and wannabe social media guru, I am not naïve to the ways in which today’s reporters are finding and writing their stories.

With over 880 Twitter followers, I’m an advocate for the effective use of social media in the newsroom. Today’s social world with unlimited connectedness and ability to reach people in real-time provides unprecedented opportunities for networking, business, and journalism.

But what I am learning in the classroom, in newsrooms and the online world about journalistic ethics and accountability lies in stark contrast to the way Twitter is currently being used by reporters with some major media organizations.

The trend toward using people who tweet  as legitimate sources in stories, and using stand-alone tweets as quotes, counteracts a primary function of the profession and promotes reactive reporting. There is a right way and a wrong way to use Twitter in journalism — making the digital platform journalist’s best friend and journalism’s worst enemy.

My concern about this was piqued when I read a Toronto Star “article” about a jibberish tweet sent from PC leader Tim Hudak’s account. The piece is based solely on comments posted on the social media site, including the use of two quotations the reporter took from Twitter. The story then lists six tweets from various users speculating the cause of the tweet. Aside from the problematic sourcing, my bigger problem with this article is: how is this news?

What really threw me over the edge on this topic was discovering one of my own tweets had been used by the Star in a piece on an Ottawa school’s decision to ban yoga pants. While I understand what is posted on Twitter is in the public domain and can be seen and used by anyone, it still surprised me to find out I had been quoted in the paper when someone from the Star tweeted me saying, basically, “by the way, we used your tweet.”

That the use of tweets for sources passes for journalism astounds me. If the reporter had contacted me (easily done through Twitter, getting my phone number and calling me) she would have found out more about what I posted and why. My tweet, which read “Every school should have uniforms,” was grounded in a strong conviction I hold about clothing in secondary education and one I would be happy to explain and defend. The reporter, should she have contacted me, would have found out that as a student who has experience in almost every school system – public, homeschool, private – my time wearing a uniform was the best and the reasons why. Would this information not have provided for a better, more enlightening story?

As a journalist and journalism student, I find this incredibly problematic. If this is what passes as a published story in the real world, where are my well-honed interview skills, and ability to chase down a source going? If we as students in j-school cited something a person said on Twitter as a source in our stories, we would fail the assignment. So, why is this becoming the accepted norm within news media organizations?

It seems we’re moving towards lazy journalism when a reporter can simply do a Twitter search of a subject or hashtag and use a tweet in lieu of a quote or paraphrase of a source. This gets rid of one of the core functions of a journalist – going out into the world and talking to people face-to-face or calling up individuals to speak with, ask questions and understand the entire story: context, feelings, surroundings and all.

Using Twitter strategically means garnering true and meaningful story ideas, finding sources, crowdsourcing, and then reaching out to people on your own.

In the recent shooting at Virginia Tech, journalists took to Twitter to find students and witnesses to get information and a firsthand account of the atrocity. For example, a CBS News journalist tweeted “Hey #vatech – looking to speak & get updates from students on campus.” This use of Twitter for finding sources is good, presuming the news organization follows up with them to do some more traditional reporting.

But copy-and-pasting tweets into copy is something else entirely.

Storify – the social platform that creates stories for users by consolidating tweets, pictures and posts – is great for individuals and businesses, but not so much for journalists. In its facilitation of quick-and-easy reporting, it makes sense that cash-strapped newsrooms are using the site more and more. While it may be the go-to tool for citizen journalists, those in the profession should know it can be an assistance, but not a dependency.

Storify helps prove that today’s journalist – professional or amateur — doesn’t have to leave the office, let alone their laptop or smartphone, to write a story. But as these platforms proliferate, will there still be a place for quality reporting and investigative journalism in the future? I certainly hope so, as do my classmates who will soon  graduate with nearly $30,000 journalism degrees.

While I would be the first one to support an increased role of digital communication and social media for journalists, there is a way for it to be properly and ethically used — one which more reporters should follow.

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2 responses to “Twitter: Journalists’ best friend and journalism’s worst enemy

  1. You’ve gone viarl!
    You said it, Stephanie: “Aside from the problematic sourcing, my bigger problem with this article is: how is this news?” I’m glad to read that you are thinking through your ethics and your writing. As a middle-aged, semi-retired, former teacher, I had students in 1990s who would print off whole sections from the web, and claim it as their own. I cannot believe this kind of thing is still a means by which journalists create a story, rather than report the news.

    I am concerned that journalists are confusing social media with social marketing. The social aspect means that they are trying to engage readers, listeners, the public, but in 140 characters it is incredibly trivialising and making trite much ‘reporting’. Note the plethora of ‘news’ items on ‘buying the right gift’, for example.

    This is news: Save us from amateur pilots. This guy landed in store parking lot near us. Too many accidents from people with money, and many incidents with small planes, snowmobiles, jetskis. So many amateurs are on the web, too.

  2. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I believed this put up used to be great. I don’t realize who you are but certainly you
    are going to a well-known blogger should you aren’t already. Cheers!

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