Reinventing the Newsroom

When Defending Twitter Goes Too Far

Posted in Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on September 10, 2009

In the New York Times, Roger Cohen pens an examination of Twitter and journalism — and he’s being skewered for this bit:

But is [Twitter] journalism? No. In fact journalism in many ways is the antithesis of the “Here Comes Everybody” — Clay Shirky’s good phrase — deluge of raw material that new social media deliver. For journalism is distillation. It is a choice of material, whether in words or image, made in pursuit of presenting the truest and fairest, most vivid and complete representation of a situation.

That strikes me as too black and white, about which more in a bit. But what’s unfortunate is Cohen is getting smacked around (on Twitter, of course) as if he’s Ted Diadun, when in fact I found him well-informed about Twitter and eloquent about the role it’s played in the Iranian elections and the unrest that’s followed.

Twitter is a protean thing that resists easy description, but Cohen does a good job exploring its various facets: “a formidable alerting system for a breaking story; a means of organization; a monitor of global interest levels (Iran trended highest for weeks until Michael Jackson’s death) and of media performance; a bank of essential links; a rich archive; and a community”. And his opening anecdote (from Iranian-American scholar Mahasti Afshar) is a marvelous summary of the social-media revolution and its effect on news.

Does Cohen go a bit too far in trying to define what is (and therefore also what isn’t) journalism? Yes, I think he does. Seeking a more-nuanced take, I found this summation of a paper being delivered today by Alfred Hermida. Hermida refers to  Twitter as a “para-journalism form,” and suggests the rise of it and similar forms are supporting what he calls ambient journalism — an awareness of current news and events that readers distill from micro-blogged fragments. (I suspect this owes something to the idea of ambient intimacy that users of Facebook and other social-media services derive from the constant flow of friends’ status updates.)

That’s interesting — but at least from an abstract (and that’s a big caveat), it doesn’t sound too dissimilar from what Cohen is saying. (Slightly sheepish addendum: Seems I described Twitter as ambient news myself back in July.)

Twitter is a wonderful tool for a number of different purposes. I now turn to it first for breaking news, because I find it faster than any online news source and reliable as an aggregator. At EidosMedia we’ve integrated Twitter with our editing-and-publishing system to make it even quicker as a tool for disseminating stories. And if I found myself back in a newsroom, my first order of business would be to craft a Twitter persona as effective and entertaining as the Chicago Tribune’s Colonel Tribune. Whether you call it journalism or para-journalism or not-journalism, Twitter is an effective and important tool that needs to be in the kit of every journalist and news organization. (If you’d like to follow me, I’d be honored.)

But Cohen’s right that it’s not a substitute for a trained view on the ground — you wouldn’t want to replace a piece like Atul Gawande’s investigation into the roots of our health-care woes with tweets. I don’t think Cohen is right that journalism “comes into being only through an organizing intelligence, an organizing sensibility,” but I wholeheartedly agree that journalism serves readers better when that organizing intelligence exists and is put to good use. (Twitter searches during the Iran elections were valuable; Nico Pitney’s aggregation was more so.) And I found Cohen’s rather lyrical defense of presence and choices an excellent rallying cry against the bland, dully even-handed commodity reportage that’s contributed to our industry’s woes.

Twitter is remarkable, and I’ve become one of its evangelists — at first to my surprise, now to my delight. But I don’t think the distance between Twitter’s other champions and Cohen is really as wide as initial reactions may suggest.

(While we’re on the subject, my colleague David Baker and I discuss Twitter, social media and the effect on news organizations in EidosMedia’s latest Web chat, available here.)

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