Twitter vs. “the press”: Let’s not go there

Despite many attempts to put it to rest, the journalism discussion still hasn’t resolved “bloggers versus journalists,” a shorthand for cultural conflict over journalism’s past and future. Now we have a new iteration: Twitter versus the press, which comes up in nearly every major breaking news discussion. Today’s edition is a Mashable post by Samantha Murphy reporting that two Twitter users beat the Associated Press in putting out word of singer Whitney Houston’s death Saturday in Los Angeles.

The post explains that Big Chorizo (@chilemasgrande) tweeted news of Houston’s death from “his sources” to his 14 followers 27 minutes before the AP posted its confirmation and that, according to an update, a user named AjaDiorM. (@AjaDiorNavy) might have been 15 minutes ahead of that.

“Do you think Twitter is the future of breaking news?” Murphy asks. No, I’d say it’s a key part of the present of breaking news in a permanently transformed news environment — one in which eyewitnesses contribute directly to news flow and in which good journalism (verification, amplification, myth-busting) shifts its emphasis but not its values.

Twitter is a channel carrying news, not a person or organization originating it. Its users (not Twitter) break news, whether they are professionals or amateurs, and credibility ultimately rests on that information being accurate. Social media can improve journalism by opening up sourcing and moving information much faster from rumor to truth-checking.

For instance, consider a recent blog post from the editor of the Mercury in Pottstown, Pa., Nancy March, describing her staff’s reporting on a police standoff and the interplay of professionals and eyewitnesses using social media. This was a live-time demonstration of how journalism can work as an exchange and how news professionals add value today in connection with social media and Web outlets. These are not in opposition if you consider the public interest in timely, accurate and credible information.

This brings me back to bloggers versus journalists: Press critic and NYU associate professor Jay Rosen has written about this conflict for years and noted in a March speech and blog post that the friction persists because there’s clearly more to it than simple facts (i.e. for years some journalists have blogged and some bloggers have done journalism). His exploration considers what bloggers get out of the oppositional framework but mostly faults what he calls “the professional press” for  using bloggers-vs.-journalists  as “an elaborate way of staying the same, of refusing to change.”

Yet the fault line works both ways. The tendency to cling to 20th-century definitions of professional journalism is as evident in the refusal of what I call digital triumphalists to recognize change as it is in defensiveness among some veterans. I hear this in “Twitter beats mainstream press on X event” — a sense of triumph for the new in which Twitter users recognize their own empowerment. As much as I share some of that feeling as a Twitter user/addict, I also think it leans on some of the same false opposition as bloggers-vs.-journalists and risks the same missed opportunities for journalism to improve in the digital era.

The practice of journalism is amid transformation, both in who provides news and how professionals engage a networked digital information universe. This change shows up in big ways and small ones, from the Wall Street Journal’s use of Instagram in covering Fashion Week (as reported here by NiemanLab’s Andrew Phelps) to individual reporters using Twitter to ask questions and build sources. I’m a heavy digital user (and a big print reader, not a big TV watcher) and have argued many times that news companies and professional journalism have taken far too long to understand and respond to technology’s impact on how we live and communicate. That’s still true, but many smart newspeople (from old and new media) and some companies are moving now.

Changes in consumer technology and entrepreneurship (six months ago, who knew Pinterest?) continue to shift the news equation. It would be astonishing if news wasn’t broken (and it is, every day) by non-journalists using Twitter, Facebook, blog platforms, Google tools or other sources. Who doesn’t like being the one to share news? So the fact that people share news on Twitter is hardly news itself. What’s more interesting, and challenging, than “Twitter-versus-the-press” is “Twitter and the press” — how to recognize, attribute and amplify news shared by individuals as part of the larger common cause of a well-informed society.

Xavier Damman, the programmer who cofounded Storify with former AP journalist Burt Herman, described this eloquently in a presentation at the U.K. “News: Rewired” conference last October. Journalists, he said, can help amplify the voices of people who might not otherwise be heard.

If we can move past the digital triumphalism to a more rational framework for thinking about digital shift’s potential for informed communities, we might see that the jobs of journalism in verifying information, providing context and going beyond what’s said to what’s actually occurred are as important as ever — and perhaps more so.

Those acts are defined not by who does them but by how they’re done. A Twitter user identified only by a moniker might provide tantalizing information, but is it true?  Who stands behind it? So verification, whether by other users, professional journalists or fact-checking sites, is a key step. Remember the erroneous tweets on Gabrielle Giffords’ “death” just over a  year ago, reconsidered here by Craig Silverman for Poynter? How about the incorrect tweets prematurely reporting Joe Paterno’s death, which cost a couple of people their jobs (explored in Jeff Sonderman’s Poynter recap)? In both cases news organizations (NPR, the Huffington Post, CBS) were criticized heavily for failing to verify information they tweeted, and those responsible paid a price. Information tweeted by non-journalists isn’t held to as high a bar as news put out by professionals; that’s appropriate, yet unacknowledged in the “Twitter had it first” debate.

Last fall the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released a report on social news distribution from Nic Newman, who helped lead BBC web strategy and development for more than a decade. It showed, as most such studies show, that most links come from news sites and that individual journalists and organizations are using new ways to establish currency and credibility through social media.

They’re part of the picture, not all of it. So are @chilemasgrande and @AjaDiorNavy, who tweeted first (according to Mashable) about Houston’s death, and the users who added their tweets, spreading the news, their reactions, their soundtracks and more in a conversation that is still unfolding. As I write, the LA Times’ Ministry of Gossip blog is dissecting rumors on how Houston died and other details; the Storify social-media storytelling site features a number of compilations of celebrity reaction; people are sharing Houston soundtracks via Spotify on Facebook and other sharing sites; and many journalists are digging in for deeper reporting.

It’s not us versus them, it’s us and them. Twitter links the press to the street in ways that one-way media never could. What wonderful things can we all do together next?

 

(Updated to correct Samantha Murphy’s name from original)

 

 

 

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