Twitter journalism: Think before you tweet

Trying to make sense of the week’s news from the Boston Marathon Bombings has been very difficult, to say the least.
For those of you who read my previous post, The Boston Marathon heroes: We will remember them (http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-cY), you can see I took the easy option of describing the courage of the first responders. Of course, it wasn’t possible at the time of writing to say who had done it, and I wasn’t about to do an Alan Jones, and blame it on left-wing students, but I knew I had to comment on the biggest story of the week. Since then we have learned more about Dagestan, Chechnya and the Tsarnaev brothers and their families. And I have read every word I could (I’ve certainly missed a few!) because it is important to learn where they were coming from … just in case they have any counterparts here (and they probably do).
Speaking of every word brings me to the social media. I found a lot of the information from Twitter useful, particularly links to background articles. From a breaking news point of view, Twitter was terrific, from an accuracy view, it was much less so. One of its strengths, reaction to lightning-fast events, is also one of its weaknesses. You can’t take it at face value. You need to check with CNN, the New York Times, Associated Press, to name a few. And, of course, today, AP was hacked and a false tweet that two bombs had exploded in the White House, injuring President Obama, caused Wall Street to lose $195 billion (briefly — most of it recovered later in the day) http://bit.ly/17UWsQK
Last Saturday when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was being pursued in the Boston suburb of Watertown after his older brother, Tamerlan, was killed in a shootout with police (eyewitness photo above of the brothers hiding behind a car during the shootout), I was on Twitter and flicking back and forth from Sky News, which had a live feed from ABC America, to CNN, Channel Nine, Channel Seven and ABC Australia. The best coverage was ABC America, presented by Diane Sawyer and a host of reporters, but Denham Hitchcock of Nine managed to find a resident who reported that the surviving brother was hiding in a boat in a suburban backyard. The local got it from a very good source, obviously someone in the police, but couldn’t reveal who it was. That was excellent reporting by an Australian on the ground, with hundreds of journalists from around the world covering that backyard boat.
Diane Sawyer then spoke to the family next door whose boat was harbouring a dangerous terrorist, who told the wonderful story of their neighbour finding the terrorist in his beloved vessel and rushing inside to call 911 … and then being escorted out by the Boston Police. Imagine calling the police and then having 500 show up on your doorstep! Again good coverage.
I don’t agree with Crikey’s political correspondent, Bernard Keane, who said on The Drum last week http://bit.ly/10yoggr “If you sat and watched the Twitter feed this afternoon … around MIT, you’re watching the traditional media model dying before your very eyes.” On the same program, Dominic Knight, the presenter of the evening program on ABC 702, said: “You should think before you publish. Slow down.” The Walkley Award-winning investigative journalist for the SMH, Kate McClymont, also condemned “the rush to report.” She said what’s the point of “being first if you can’t get your facts right.”
Call me old-fashioned, but I still like my news stories to be analytical, well written and accurate. Take Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night about the anti-Vietnam war March on the Pentagon in 1967. He describes himself in the third person, but also puts the reader in the picture, and shows both sides of the story. He quotes one of my journalistic heroes, Jimmy Breslin, on the confrontation between the soldiers and the demonstrators: “Taste and decency had left the scene a long time before. All that remained were these lines of troops and packs of nondescript kids who taunted the soldiers. The kids went to the bathroom on the side of the Pentagon building. They threw a couple of rocks through first-floor windows. The soldiers faced them silently.” Then, as Mailer puts it, “let us now dare to give an extract of Gerald Long’s account in the National Guardian.”
“A girl confronted a soldier, ‘Why, why, why?’ she asked. ‘We’re just like you. You’re like us. It’s them,’ she said, pointing to the Pentagon. She brought her two fingers to her mouth, kissed them and touched the soldier’s lips. Four soldiers grabbed her and dragged her away, under arrest. The soldier she had spoken to tried to tell them that she hadn’t hurt him.”
Mailer goes on: “It may be obvious by now that a history of the March on the Pentagon, which is not unfair will never be written, any more than a history which could prove dependable in details!”
Can you imagine trying to condense Norman Mailer into tweets? Or how about the man after which my blog is named: Hunter S. Thompson, whose Songs of the Doomed, is subtitled: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream Gonzo Papers Vol 3. Try saying this in 140 characters: “It was 1968 – The Death Year – and this time it was the Democrats who ran amok. If the campaign had been conducted under the Rules of War – which it was a war: a civil war – thousands of hate-crazy young Democrats would have been tortured to death by their own kind, or killed in the street like wild animals. Both Johnson and Humphrey would have been executed for treason.
“We were all crazy, that year, and many people developed aggressive attitudes. When I packed for Chicago, there was nothing unusual about including a Bell motorcycle helmet, yellow ski goggles, a new pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars (sneakers), and a short billyclub. Packing for Chicago was not like taking off for Club Med. The Democratic Party has never recovered from that convention.”
This was written in 1990, when Republican George H.W. Bush was president.
I mentioned the improbability of Hunter S. Thompson tweeting in my first blog post two years ago http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-a. If you’ll excuse me quoting myself, here is what I said about Thompson: “I often wonder how he would have used Twitter. I think he would have rebelled against the 140-character limit – his rants were usually 140 pages long before he got warmed up, though he did write a good short column for the San Francisco Examiner (see his collection, A Generation of Swine), and a popular sports column for ESPN.com. But he would have loved having a million or two followers, and stirring them up, with his controversial opinions and sparkling wit. Alas, he committed suicide in his fortified compound in Woody Creek, Colorado in February 2005.”
I wasn’t the only one wondering about what one of his journalistic heroes would think of Twitter. Mark Little is the CEO of Storyful.com, a newsgathering platform developed and powered by journalists for journalists. His hero was the famous World War Two correspondent, Ernie Pyle:

“I wonder what Ernie Pyle would have made of Twitter and Reddit? What would he think of a world where everyone is an eye-witness, where reporters no longer control the first draft of history? How would he have viewed events in Boston, and the fierce, fitful stream of first-person horror and instant judgment that defined them?”

In his blog post, When everyone is an eye-witness, what is a journalist? http://bit.ly/17KT5vK
Little defends Twitter, and explains what he thinks is the greatest threat to journalism:

“On the night of the Boston bombings, my Twitter timeline was filled with the ambivalent cry of those who saw danger and opportunity around them. In the words of one angst-ridden tweep:
‘Today reminds me how Twitter has become one of the greatest tools as well as one of greatest threats to true journalism.’
“I share the sentiment … However, the frenzied debate about Boston and social media seems to have missed the central point. The greatest threat to ‘True Journalism’ is not social media but an outmoded concept of breaking news.
“The anonymous Twitter user rushing to name a suspect or the TV reporter breathlessly quoting unnamed sources are cut from the same cloth. This is ‘Me First’ journalism, powered by vanity and self-importance, and it is the greatest threat to ‘True Journalism’.”

Mark Little says we still need the Ernie Pyles on the scene (in my case, the Jimmy Breslins): “…taking their time to find the defining detail. But we also need a new category of reporter, responsible for finding the hidden signal in the noise. We desperately need skilled professionals who can turn isolated units of social content into compelling stories, who can shape the narrative emerging out of the cacophony of conversation flowing through the social web.”
In this big news week, you might not have caught Media Watch on ABC in which Jonathan Holmes focused on how politicians can bypass the gatekeepers – member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery – using the social media to address voters directly http://bit.ly/Y5u3sf. Toward the end, the criticism shifted to journalists interviewing other journalists, instead of reporting. Holmes said: “… even as their numbers dwindle, more and more senior journalists appear to be spending time analysing and opining, rather than digging and reporting.”
The Minister for Sport, Kate Lundy, agreed and so does Laurie Oakes, who never wanted journalists talking to other journalists on the Sunday Program. I know because, as his producer, whenever I suggested that, he told me to forget it, in rather harsher language. Here’s what he said in his Media Alliance Centenary Lecture last year, broadcast on Media Watch: “A concentration on providing facts – simple unfiltered information – would be a real point of difference in the coming contest with the new kind of political journalists – the ones who’ll be players in the political game reporting on themselves and using the media access that technology has given them to push their own political interests.”
The only way to write or produce a good story is to do your homework, think about what you want to say, and then rewrite until you get it right. That is impossible on Twitter, but you can break stories in 140 characters, as long as you know the facts. You can then look for the background pieces to fill in the gaps. In some cases, it may take days, if not weeks or months, for the full story to be told. That’s the one I want to read.
And on this Anzac Day, in a week when Dzhokhaar Tsarnaev was charged with using a weapon of mass destruction (ironic, given it was finally found ten years after a war was started because of it), I’d like to end with a poem written by one of the Anzacs, Thorvald Kook of the 43rd Battalion, quoted in Patsy Adam-Smith’s classic story about the men who went to Gallipoli, The Anzacs:

Do you remember?
Those scenes of sadness
To me like days of drunken madness
That awful dilemma
Looking straight at hell
While we ducked from the bullet and screeching shell
Do I remember?

The finalists in the 2013 Best Australian Blogs Competition were announced this week. As predicted, I wasn’t one of them. You can see the 25 finalists here http://bit.ly/Zmf0Jz. Congratulations to all of them!
You can still vote for my blog, by clicking on the badge above and ticking my box on page 2, as the People’s Choice Round is open until next Tuesday, April 30 at 5pm (AET). According to the organisers, The Australian Writers’ Centre, it’s still anyone’s round as more than 13,500 votes have been cast, but they’re spread fairly evenly across the 1008 entrants. I think they’re just being nice to us.
The winners will be announced on Wednesday, May 1. The winners of the special awards will also be announced then on Twitter: #bestblogs13
This is just a reminder. I promise not to mention it again! Thanks again to those who voted for me.

2 thoughts on “Twitter journalism: Think before you tweet

  1. The Boston bombings and subsequent hunt for the culprits sure had Twitter in a spin…a lot being on the money, but equally, a lot being highly inaccurate. CNN has come to grief lately by not fact checking information and going to air with some wildly inaccurate Twitter fed information.
    CNN risks damaging the brand if they don’t get it right every time and have lately been rushing to air with unsourced news and having to include caveats that their info. is unverified. Not a good look for a mainstream news organisation.
    The NY Times had a good piece this week on CNN and how they are risking tarnishing their own brand.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/22/business/media/in-boston-cnn-stumbles-in-rush-to-break-news.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Social Media can also have devastating results as seen in today’s story of Sunil Tripathi, who was wrongly implicated in the Boston bombings and whose body was found floating in a Rhode Island river after going missing on March 16.
    Just because he was missing does not mean he had anything to do with the bombing, but that didn’t stop social media having a field day on his whereabouts and implicating him in the Boston attacks.

    http://www.smh.com.au/world/body-identified-as-student-falsely-implicated-in-boston-bombing-20130426-2ii9k.html

    I, like most people who have worked in the media, would still prefer to get their news from the source, or officialdom, instead of social media where anyone with a phone can open a can of worms with wild accusations and outlandish claims.

    Denham Hitchcock’s coverage for Nine had the added advantage of being able to give viewers live coverage using their digital backpack streambox transmitters, without having to be tied to satellite trucks and therefore able to go to the source for up to the minute reporting of the facts from the very people who were there.

    Social media will still be a good tool for gathering information, but mainstream media should use it with caution, as fact checking is still the one thing that will save not only their reputation, but deliver accurate news to their viewers.

    • Moshe, I couldn’t have put it better myself. (I tried but I think you beat me!) Have you ever thought of starting your own blog?
      You summed it up well, and added some interesting comments of your own. Your last paragraph said it all:
      “Social media will still be a good tool for gathering information, but mainstream media should use it with caution, as fact checking is still the one thing that will save not only their reputation, but deliver accurate news to their viewers.”
      Thank you for taking the time to comment, and adding some good links as well.
      Cheers, Tom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s