Tweets working – how Twitter is changing journalism

Published originally in the Feb/Mar 2013 edition of The Journalist

Researching an article about the popularity of social media platforms last month, Guardian technology journalist Jemima Kiss asked for opinions on Twitter. Within a couple of hours, she had 75 replies. “I am always looking for case studies or trying out ideas on Twitter”, she says. “I am never without a Twitter feed open on my computer. It’s like having an ear outside the office which is constantly updating me on what is happening in the rest of the world”.

Kiss (@jemimakiss, 32,388 followers) is one of many journalists for whom Twitter has become an indispensible work tool. John Rentoul (@JohnRentoul, 21,853 followers), The Independent on Sunday’s chief political commentator is another. “I rely on Twitter to tell me what are the running political stories. It has transformed the way that lobby journalism works. In 1995 when I started in the House of Commons, we relied on the PA wire. Today I can have a much quicker and broader conversation, often talking directly with politicians on Twitter”, he says.

Indeed, it is fair to say that the service, which allows users to post up to 140-character micro blogs from their computers, tablets and phones has transformed much of the way that news is created and broadcast. Of course, the vast majority of the 100,000 tweets that are sent every minute worldwide are of limited interest. But when important events take place, the news now nearly always appears first on Twitter. When the aftershocks from an earthquake in Costa Rica hit Nicaragua, it took less than two minutes for hundreds to tweet that there had been a tremor, for example.

Hoaxes can spread just as quickly. Last August a Twitter account called @OfficialSkyNews reported the death of Margaret Thatcher. It was retweeted thousands of times, the feed quickly gained 30,000 followers. The story was reported as fact in the United States by the broadcaster ABC, perhaps in part because the former Prime Minister’s Wikipedia entry was helpfully altered at the same time to add corroboration.

But establishing the veracity of information is just one of the reputational, ethical and legal considerations for journalists in the Twittersphere. The range of potential issues is evident from social media guidelines that have recently been adopted by many large news organisations, among them the BBC, the Washington Post, Associated Press and the LA Times.

The BBC’s guidance to its journalists encourages them to tweet in a personal capacity, but orders them: “don’t state your political preferences or say anything that compromises your neutrality”. Tweets issued in the name of BBC News must be cleared by at least one other member of editorial staff before they are sent.

But the problems can start before you have even taken a job. One of the BBC’s US bureaux hired two journalists fresh from college a couple of years ago. Almost immediately the new recruits’ social media from their student days was placed under intense scrutiny, from which a good deal about their religious and political views was evident. On that basis one blogger questioned the new journalists’ ability to work to the dispassionate standards expected of the corporation.

Current BBC thinking is that candidates’ prior social media activity should not generally count against applicants for employment – but the need to think carefully before you tweet is clear.

“Tweeting is quite a flippant medium”, says Kiss. “You tend to say things in the same way as you would in a pub conversation. But just like being in a busy pub, you do have to be a bit wary of who might be able to overhear you”.

Research by the New York Times, among others, suggests that when tweeting, most people imagine themselves to be addressing a small community, added to which there is a widely-felt drive to report or retweet news first. It is a combination that makes it easy to forget the normal journalistic instinct to verify information.

But quite apart from making yourself look a fool, there is the potentially costly problem of defamation. “Tweeting is just the same as conventional publishing”, cautions NUJ freelance organiser John Toner. “Don’t stop using your journalistic antennae when tweeting, and don’t for a moment imagine that prefacing a statement with the word ‘allegedly’ will provide any kind of legal defence”. Toner has already helped one member who faced a potential action for defamation as a result of a tweet.

There are more subtle ways that tweeting changes journalism too – sometimes with unexpected consequences. Live tweeting of events such as press conferences, for example, means an end to the days when a pack would agree the quotes at the end of an event. And with the real juice broadcast instantly, the challenge of adding further value with a written-up piece is all the greater.

Twitter is also narrowing some journalists’ focus, argues Rentoul, who declines to say how many hours a day he spends watching his feed. “The herd instinct of the lobby pack has been intensified by Twitter. There is even more pressure to follow the same stories as each other”.

The benefits outweigh the disadvantages, however, he argues. “You can have intelligent conversations on Twitter, as well as fi ghts. I am not sure how many of my readers I interact with on Twitter, but I am very engaged by quite a large group of people among whom I can check facts and try out arguments”.

Twitter can change the business model of journalism, as well as its practice, needless to say. Christian Payne (@documentally 21,675 followers) started his working life as a photographer on a provincial paper. Fearing that his prospects did not look rosy, he went freelance and now describes himself as a ‘social technologist’. “I self-financed an assignment in Iraq and sold a few pictures to the nationals.

But when I put the pictures together as a slide show and put it up on YouTube the viewing fi gures went through the roof,” he says.

More followers took notice when he posted up short personal video clips in which he sometimes ‘made an arse of himself’. His first was in the immediate aftermath of seriously crashing his car on the way to an assignment. Like his other material he put it up on the web for free – but the return comes from his expanded audience. “Suddenly work started coming to me, and today I am being offered three times more work than I have the time to undertake”, he says.

The United Nations commissioned him to produce video blogs, for example. He has covered numerous conferences and has even travelled from Lands End to John O’Groats without a penny in his pocket, by tweeting, on behalf of Vodaphone. Payne commands day rates of between £500 and £1,000.

Of course Twitter is by no means the first technological advance to which journalism has adapted – the telephone and the worldwide web were arguably more profound in their impact. Indeed, Twitter may prove to be significantly more short-lived than Alexander Graham Bell’s invention.

But even if it does not last a generation in its current form, you can be sure that Twitter’s ‘always-on’ water canon of information will endure, and that the world of journalism will be shaped by its considerable pressure for the foreseeable future.

Tweet sorrow

Allowing your personality to shine through your tweets is widely considered a key to gaining followers. The pitfalls of unguarded tweeting are considerable, however, particularly if your professional reputation depends on your ability with words.

According to a Freedom of Information request by Associated Press, convictions resulting from electronic communications increased from 873 in 2009 to 1,286 in 2011. Indeed, a journalist on the Great Yaremouth Mercury lost their job at the end of last year after tweeting on a personal account the name of a man being questioned by police investigating historic child-sex-abuse allegations.

Dave Boyle (@theboyler, 1,752 followers) knows more than most about the perils of ill-considered tweeting. He had to stand down as chief executive of the football charity Supporters Direct as a result of sharing rather too much on the microblogging site.

After an afternoon in a pub last year watching his team, AFC Wimbledon, secure promotion to the second division, Boyle issued a string of uncivil tweets. Some made rather grandiose and expletive studded claims for the import of his team’s success. Others indicated the strength of his dislike for some of the individuals who had allowed the original Wimbledon football club to migrate to Milton Keynes, nine years earlier.

In a beery pub conversation, Boyle’s comments would have attracted little attention. But once they were published online, and searchable by anyone with an internet connection, they made his position as the head of an organisation which is funded by the Football Association completely untenable – particularly once they had been picked up by the national press. “I was a bloody idiot”, says Boyle. “It hadn’t really occurred to me that the laws of defamation would apply to me when I tweeted, nor that any but my quite select group of followers would take any notice of what I said”.

Quite possibly Boyle’s mistake was to hand his enemies a stick with which to beat him, and for that he paid a considerable price.

If there is one lesson to take from his experience, perhaps it is this. If you value your professional reputation, then social media devices, like car keys, are probably best left behind when you visit a licensed establishment.