Anyone who has gotten the latest news about Steve Jobs’ resignation or the revolution in Libya from Twitter is probably used to the idea that the real-time information network has become a powerful tool for journalism — a point we’ve made often. But that reality is still filtering down through the world of political reporting, as a recent piece in the American Journalism Review describes. Just as CNN created the 24-hours news cycle for television, Twitter has accelerated that news cycle to the point where news breaks every minute of every hour, and a tweet is almost as good as a page-one scoop. Not only that, but anyone can do it.
As AJR writer Jodi Enda notes in her piece, “Campaign Coverage in the Time of Twitter,” the way that political campaigns and elections are covered has changed dramatically in the past decade. Not only are there more non-mainstream media outlets covering those events and issues — including Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Politico and ProPublica, which were either tiny startups or didn’t even exist a decade ago — but the way that reporters do their jobs has been completely altered. Now a hot news item is as likely to appear on Twitter first as it is the front page or the 6 o’clock news. Enda writes:
If you ask a bunch of political journalists to identify the biggest change in political reporting this election cycle, the answer comes in a short burst: “Twitter!” The microblogging service was founded in 2006 but played little if any role in the 2008 campaign. Now, however, it has become an indispensable tool.
Politicians and parties are media entities too
It’s not just the reporters and other journalists who are using Twitter to reshape the way political reporting happens; the AJR piece notes that politicians and their parties are doing it as well. Candidates are posting their own videos to YouTube and their campaign statements to Facebook, and when there’s a news announcement, they post it to their Twitter accounts. In some cases, journalists themselves find out the news when they see it in someone’s tweet-stream, reversing the traditional relationship where reporters break the news. But they enjoy the ability to get the news straight from the horse’s mouth as well as anyone. A USA Today reporter told the AJR:
Twitter for me has replaced watching the wires. It’s a faster way to find out what’s happening… On Twitter, I see what [GOP frontrunner] Mitt Romney just said but I also see what Herman Cain [a second-tier candidate] just said. You see if the New York Times has posted a story but also if The Daily Caller has posted a story. It’s 360 degrees. No one is filtering the news for you.
Of course, that same unfiltered aspect is what many non-journalists like about Twitter and social media as well. They can see the news occurring and make up their own minds rather than having to wait for the New York Times or the evening news to tell them what happened. And many political reporters and media executives are starting to realize that what Om has called the “democratization of distribution” created by Twitter and other social media gives anyone the tools to become a journalist — whether they want to call themselves that or not. Roger Simon, Politico’s chief political columnist, tells the AJR:
Use of social media and electronic media obviously means that anybody with a laptop, anybody with a PDA, is a journalist.
Mayhill Fowler looks almost quaint now
As Enda notes in her piece, this is a lesson that Mayhill Fowler — a “citizen journalist” working for the Off The Bus project, an experimental journalism effort created by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and The Huffington Post — taught the world in 2008, when she reported not one but two statements that rocked the political world (at least briefly), one by then-candidate Barack Obama and one by former president Bill Clinton. But in a world where politicians are tweeting their own lurid photos long before any press outlet gets hold of them, what Fowler did seems almost quaint by comparison.
Not everyone likes this new world. Veteran journalists like Howard Kurtz, now the Washington bureau chief for The Daily Beast, see the news cycle as too fast — “We’re on deadline every hour as opposed to a couple times a day,” he says, a phenomenon some have called the “hamsterization” of the news. Kurtz says it’s too focused on the ephemeral as well, or what Carl Cannon, the Washington editor of RealClearPolitics, calls “the latest lint.” But the focus on the salacious headline rather than the underlying policy issues isn’t really a new thing — that’s been a criticism of political reporting since before newspapers were invented, and certainly since CNN came along.
Just as it has made it easier to find out about demonstrations in Tahrir Square or a bombing in Tripoli, so too has Twitter disrupted the way political reporting occurs. Politicians and their staff have become media entities in their own right, able to “go direct” instead of having to wait for a journalistic intermediary to bring their message to the masses. And anyone using those same tools becomes a journalist — perhaps not one with the same power as the A1 story on the New York Times front page, but still a force to be reckoned with.
The reality of the Twitter effect isn’t just that President Obama has Twitter town halls now where he talks directly to American citizens, nor is it just that someone with no journalism background sitting in a house in Pakistan can report on a military raid that kills the world’s most notorious terrorist. It’s that journalism of all kinds has now become something you do, not something you are. Anyone can do it, whether they call themselves a journalist or not. And that has repercussions for all forms of media, not just political reporting.