Shhh! Listen! Did you hear that?
If you close your eyes and concentrate you may well hear the whoosh of tiny blue birds. Each second 6,000 tweets get chirped into the ether (though, admittedly, that’s a stat likely to date as fast as Miley Cyrus’ relationship status). In any case, that’s a lot of thoughts being thunk.
Yes, it’s a bottomless pit of information.
Yes, there are uncountable falsehoods, rumors and untruths which might identify Twitter as patient zero.
Yes, it has the tendency to turn even the most reasonable people into – as the New York Times journalist, Farhad Manjoo, memorably puts it – “knee-jerk outrage-bots reflexively set off by this or that hash-tagged cause”.
But no, though all this is true, this isn’t an article about the ills of Twitter. That’s been covered plenty. Nope, this is more positive. Twitter – just as with other social media platforms – has its merits, and with around a quarter of verified Twitter users being journalists, clearly we’re a bunch that are using it with some enthusiasm.
So what makes people want to get all chirpy?
Firstly, a caveat.
Brian Stelter took to CNN’s Edition earlier this year to echo a word of caution about the industry’s propensity to overuse the platform. “I used to think the transparency of Twitter helped improve trust in media,” he said then. But, “the more time someone spends on Twitter, the more likely their view of the world is distorted by all the shouting.” The column he was referencing – that aforementioned piece by Farhad Manjoo – urged journalists to dial back their usage: “post less, lurk more”.
Therein lies the nuance. Twitter is the gateway to information, not the destination for it.
What Manjoo hits on is the simple fact that Twitter – when used to its full potential – is an enlightening, expansive tool, able to reach and connect with those far out of the normal scope of most journalists. Used as source it’s considerably more troublesome.
So, assuming we’ve all learned from our collective blunders, how do journalists use it?
Tap into the breaking news cycle
Surely, surely, by now any journalist worth their salt knows that just because ‘everyone is talking about it on Twitter’, doesn’t mean that ‘everybody’s talking about it’. Right?
That said, as a news feed it’s pretty great resource. Follow your key industry players and you’ve got breaking news sewn up through whichever lens you chose to view it.
if you use it properly, it's an interactive real-time news feed curated by the best in the world, about exactly what you care about. why not?
— Fabio Chiusi (@fabiochiusi) August 19, 2019
This in itself presents both a problem and a solution. With Twitter acting as a relentless breaking news feed, publishers may struggle to convince their readers that this service is something worth subscribing to. However – and this is where it gets interesting – if you accept the fact that the ‘update me’ user need is being taken care of via this social media channels, there’s enormous potential to focus attention away from the breaking news notification to the more analytical, much deeper coverage of those important issues.
Here, Twitter serves the purpose of alerting us to the issues and the events. It’s sloppy to simply repurpose those snippets, but makes sense to use them as a digital tip sheet.
Engage readers through process
As a journalism nerd through and through, part of the appeal for me is to witness the process of information gathering and story development. Take this tweet from Robert Costa, which gives users a peek into the world of how these stories evolve:
On phone w/ @ChrisMurphyCT as WSJ story broke. His immediate reaction when I read him the lede: "If it's true that the president requested that the president of Ukraine interfere in an American election, we are in really dangerous, brand new territory."https://t.co/Pt2kIxD2N0
— Robert Costa (@costareports) September 20, 2019
At a time when reader trust in journalism is depressingly low (see, for example this year’s Reuter’s Report for country by country analysis or the latest from Pew), broadcasting the process may well help reassure readers that what they’re reading is rigorously researched.
When David Farenthold won his Pulitzer for national reporting in 2016, his Twitter feed was shared widely in the coverage. Why? It was a notable example of how to present a story on the platform as well as how to demonstrate your workings too.
It’s not just about ‘showing your workings’, though (and that’s always a great example to share).
Joy Mayer, at Trusting News, leads engagement workshops and conversations, and one of the things that she often talks about is the need to explain those workings.
Here’s a tweet from Doris Truong, who was in attendance at Mayer’s talk at this year’s ONA conference.
(Room reaction: *gasp*)
— Doris N. Truong (@DorisTruong) September 11, 2019
The way we report may well need to be explained more fully, but to know this in absolute terms, it’s not sufficient to replicate Farenthold’s approach: the message that needs reinforcing to all journalists, in all publications, in all places is that engagement with your readership is key. Without knowing your community you stand little chance of reaching them in a way they will respond to. What works for the Washington Post isn’t necessarily a methodology that’s going to work for readers of the Eastern Daily Press in my neck of the woods here in the UK.
Find voices inside and outside of your bubble…
“Journalists are already prone to clubby insularity”, wrote Emily Robinson in Current Affairs. It’s true that those in publishing talk to one another across Twitter a lot, and yes, 2016 has proven that filter bubbles are a problem and that we all need to take a long, hard look at the way we both gather, dissect and report information back to our readerships.
Fabio Chuisi may be right that Twitter has the potential to act as a newsfeed curated by the people you most respect and trust – and hopefully that puts the right stuff in front of us at the right time. Sometimes that’s breaking news, sometimes it’s sources and leads, and sometimes it’s professional connections and networking.
The flip side of course is that it can make it harder to find those more unfamiliar or opposing voices. They’re there, but you have to actively seek them out.
Why I like Twitter: I hear new voices not in mass media. Those I follow curate news & content. I get reaction to ideas. I follow breaking news. I like puppies.
— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) August 19, 2019
But, it’s never been more important to be an active participant in this process: it’s not just about reaching out across the ever-widening political aisle. It’s simply about reaching your readers like they do at the Texas Tribune: “we meet [them] where they are – literally”.
We’re each in a kind of Venn Bubble: informed and motivated by a unique blend of multiple interests, perspectives and connections. Filter bubbles aren’t just whether you’re about Making America Great Again or that you’re Stronger Together. It’s easy to forget that there are smaller bubbles too: those informed by more immediate, local concerns.
The reliability of the local public transport system or the provision of local libraries or public swimming pools matter a great deal to certain sections of certain communities. A town or city is home to so many of these things – it’s our job to find these little bubbles of concern and work from them. Twitter allows us to do that, which is almost as magical as bubbles themselves.
Sometimes it’s just a digital water cooler. And that’s fine too.
The reality is that journalists are not exactly a group viewed entirely favourably by the reading public.
Women journalists of Twitter: advice please. What is the correct way to be a journalist?
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) September 22, 2019
Sometimes, in lieu of a literal water cooler, it’s nice to be able to hang out with your peers – especially if your peers are located on the other side of the globe. And, when you’re having the kind of rubbish day that Carole seemed to have had, a little solidarity arriving digitally is kind of nice.
After all, personal Twitter accounts allow for personalities to come through.
Personal brand or professional outlet?
This intersection of the ‘on duty’ and ‘off duty’ journalist is interesting.
The Guardian columnist, Tanya Gold published a piece this week about surviving a twitter storm. “Sometimes I write glibly,” she said. “I make an argument for myself and forget that people read it”.
There’s the rub. Social media is a brilliant avenue for all of the above things, but it makes no distinction between what you’re sharing professionally and what you’ve tweeted after sitting on a delayed train at rush hour with no air conditioning. Like it or not, it’s all out there.
In Gold’s case (which we should be at pains to point out has – to the best of our knowledge – nothing whatsoever to do with public transportation), articulating a controversial opinion via Twitter meant she was at the frontline of dealing with the fallout.
Twitter does give us glimpses into the lives and minds of those we’d otherwise only be familiar with in print. Whatever form that takes, be it enraged tirade or slew of kitten memes, it all contributes to the way people view us. After all, we may only be following colleagues from The Times or The Post or The Atlantic, but there’s not much stopping anyone following us.
Just as it pays to search out those differing perspectives from those outside our close circle, we mustn’t forget that we need to be communicating our own perspectives as clearly and articulately as we can too. Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins may have cornered the market in the controversial Tweet, but ‘incendiary’ isn’t something to aspire to.
Social media personas are there to be cultivated – we’re all brands now, after all.
It’s opportunity, innit?
By its definition, social media is, well, social. And, just as with any social interaction, it’s best when that interaction goes two ways. What’s valuable about Twitter for journalists is the potential for conversation – and collaboration. It’s a feedback loop that’s worth paying attention to.
The conversation about journalists on Twitter being too cliquey seems done. We know that can be the case. The discussion we should now be having is how we can use it better, how we can start to use the vast net of users to enhance our work, our connections, our processes.
What Twitter really does is offer the opportunity for us to connect and actually, properly, communicate.