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Summary:

Twitter may not want to be seen as a media entity, but when news breaks and traditional media outlets are not around — as in Texas and Turkey — it quickly becomes the only media source that matters

By now, it’s become pretty obvious that Twitter can be an incredibly useful — if also somewhat flawed — source of real-time news during catastrophic events like the Boston bombings or the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school. But in most of those cases, Twitter is just one of hundreds of different media sources, all competing for attention. I think the network shows its real power as a media entity when traditional media is nowhere to be found — and that became abundantly obvious during two recent incidents: the demonstrations in Turkey and the filibuster of an anti-abortion bill in Texas.

The epic tale of Texas state senator Wendy Davis and her passionate stand against a proposed abortion bill is a classic example of a news story that didn’t really become obvious until it was well underway — so in a metaphorical sense at least, it was a little like a bomb going off somewhere — and it was also a story that was to some extent off the beaten path for news agencies. You might think that a state legislature would be covered like a blanket by traditional news sources, but in fact that’s rarely the case.

As Carl Franzen pointed out in a piece for The Verge, and media watcher Rachel Sklar also noted in a piece about the filibuster on Medium, many of the usual mainstream sources people would go to for real-time news — CNN and the other major broadcast networks, for example — had virtually nothing about the Texas legislature battle. And why would they? It was a typical bill being tabled through the afternoon and into the evening hours on a Tuesday. Who would have predicted that the story would explode in a way that gripped viewers and readers not just in Texas but across the U.S.?

In a post at Salon, writer Roxane Gay talked about how she experienced the filibuster as a news event, and how Twitter became a much more important — and relevant — source than anything else she could find. And that’s not just because there were plenty of people at the legislature tweeting about the event (including some local media sources such as Austin American-Statesman reporter Mike Ward, as Sklar noted in her piece) but also because of the communal feeling of involvement that a stream of Twitter news brings to such a phenomenon. Which traditional media outlets offer that? Very few.

“I cannot think of a significant event from the past three years I did not first learn about via Twitter [and] when these major news stories are breaking, there’s always a significant difference between what’s being shared via social media and what major news outlets are covering. That difference becomes more pronounced and more pathetic with each passing day.”

As it turned out, for the Davis filibuster, the only news source apart from Twitter was the YouTube channel of the Texas Tribune, a three-year-old non-profit media outlet that is only available online — and from a media analysis point of view, this story is also an excellent example of the benefits of having a quick-thinking entity like the Tribune that focuses exclusively on state news. One of the weaknesses of national networks like CNN and others is that they simply can’t move quickly enough when something unusual happens.

Twitter is citizen journalism in action

Twitter, however, has reporters everywhere — if by reporters you mean people who are on the scene of a news event and can report what is happening, and have that information transmitted instantly to thousands or even millions of people. In the most important sense, that is what we mean when we say “citizen journalism” (although I prefer the term Andy Carvin of NPR uses: “random acts of journalism”). And that is why I would argue that Twitter is one of the most important media companies in the world right now, even though CEO Dick Costolo continues to protest that it isn’t a media company at all.

We saw much the same phenomenon take place during the recent demonstrations in Turkey, which began with just a few disgruntled protesters but quickly became a national and international story of repression — again, a story that may have snuck up on many of the traditional media who are supposed to cover such things. In Turkey, however, there’s an additional aggravating factor: namely, a media industry that is widely seen as beholden to the government and therefore unlikely to question it. As I noted in a recent post, that combination of factors made Twitter a crucial news source about the event for days.

While Twitter may not see itself as a media entity — or may not want to promote itself as such, for fear of irritating its potential partners — the reality is that it is often the only media outlet that matters, because it can do two things that even large mainstream media players aren’t all that good at: it can marshall and distribute coverage by eyewitnesses almost instantly, and it can connect people emotionally to a news event in an incredibly powerful way.

If you are in the media business, that is what your competition consists of. How you adapt to that — or make it work for you rather than against you — is probably the most important question you have to face right now.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen

  1. I would like to point out that Facebook was also a very good news source during this. I’m in Austin and my Facebook feed was nearly 100% updates from inside the capitol building.

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  2. I would like to point out that Facebook was also a very good news source during this. I’m in Austin and my Facebook feed was nearly 100% updates from inside the capitol building.

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    1. Mathew Ingram Thursday, June 27, 2013

      Thanks Kevin.

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  3. Reblogged this on JDnGerz.. and commented:
    Put the power into peoples hands = You shall receive truth/Unbiased media outlet.

    Yeah we don’t need to get a news crew out there……info is NOW and it’s happening NOW…lol
    I was also thinking about how cool twitter is in terms of gettin info from peeps that are at the scene of event… sure not everyone is gonna perceive an event the right way but that’ll be up to the person that is reading the posts right? I’m wondering how it is in regards to bias in media
    (ack i gotta go to the post office right now… i dunno if i can make this thought cohesive enough to tie in but f it….)
    Some peeps can and will argue that curated media outlets are necessary to cut out all the garbage/irrelevant + incorrect info/bullshit….. buuuuuut: I think we’re finding that just like any situation and in just about every facet of life, the garbage gets filtered out anyways. I had asked in an earlier post why people use the power of the web for negative things when we can use em for positive stuff…and after i posted and thought about it for a bit…I realized that’s kind of a lame/naive question to ask, the equivalent of asking why did adam/eve take a bite outta the apple? The obvious answer is cuz we can. Ideals don’t exist when measured against the reality of
    anything and in terms of having media outlets that are curated at all, creates a bias whether or not we know realize it or not. News feed sites/apps or things like twitter that allow their users to post things lets the receiver/reader/consumer/follower of the content to make their own decisions on whether or not its relevant , no? but along the lines of inter-subjectivity etc… i dunno maybe but i liked this article ..it was good read and im repostin it on mine cuz it got me thinking…yey for thinking! (shit i better run the post office closes soon.)

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  4. Dictators and those who seek power try to control the media. Often successfully, as we know. Pravda and all that.

    Turkey seeks to ban access to Twitter unless it comes under some degree of state control. That is all the evidence that you need that it is a form of media that matters critically.

    The fact that no one has control of it, so it is often not only the first to break and track fast rising phenomena, and you have a doubly potent combination – first and unfiltered – with more and broader/deeper access to topics.

    That is something traditional media can’t match. The fact that traditional media applies a filter – whether it is biased and controlled or not – the filters are controlled by others in a non-transparent way, unlike Twitter.

    Look at a site like Twitchy.com which is exclusively a twitter aggregation site. This is not a comment on its politics or content – just its business model. Not only does it provide a gateway into Twitter as tp what it thinks is trending and as a result is news … what goes on on Twitter is itself news, as real-time conversations between “news makers” and celebrities on Twitter are reported.

    The unfiltered nature of public conversation between news makers leads to many of Twitter’s finest moments.

    When the president of Estonia (or Lithuania) replies on Twitter to an article by Paul Krugman about austerity.

    When the US Embassy in Cairo replies to the Muslim Brotherhood English feed on Twitter, thanking them for their condolences over the Benghazi tragedy, while noting that they also read their Arabic feed, which had a different view on the same tragedy.

    Or Anthony Weiner. ‘Nuff said.

    Twitter not only conveys the news, breaks the news, but is become part of the news. Fast, unfiltered, unique. I like it.

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  5. I was in Bangkok all the time during the bloody political protests 2010. During this time you could forget all the Thai media (completely controlled by government during that time) but you could also pretty much forget CNN, BBC and the other big stations. It was 90% crap what they were reporting.

    Twitter on the other hand was the only real news source. They were many freelance journalists and other people right within the protests that were tweeting as things happened. It was absolutely incredible how adding a couple people on Twitter gave you much more accurate info than looking at all the major news stations together.

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  6. I definitely appreciate how Twitter has changed the game in terms of real-time dissemination of breaking news and events, but that role isn’t replacing traditional media. In fact, it’s hard to find an appropriate analogy for something from our non-Twitter past. It’s new. Really new. Nothing else comes close. But calling it the only media outlet that matters confuses rather than clarifies just how different it is from anything else. You may be able to learn about someone named Wendy Davis and that she’s currently in the midst of a filibuster from Twitter, but you won’t get any background, context or analysis from Twitter – at least nothing substantive. Your article is proof that Twitter is far from the only media that matters – it relies far more on quotes and links to traditional media than it does on content pulled from tweets. And that’s the point. Twitter is not a media source. It has more in common with CB radio than with TV, Print, Web or anything else that has come before. And as wonderful as it is for spreading information quickly and widely, it will never replace (or even matter more than) the outlets who provide the material we need to understand that information.

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