No, Twitter Is Not a Replacement For Journalism

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Updated: In the wake of a number of events, including the use of Twitter as a real-time reporting tool by New York Times writer Brian Stelter during the aftermath of the recent tornado in Missouri, media theorist and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has written a post about how the “article” or traditional news story may no longer be necessary. With so much real-time reporting via social networks, he argues that the standard news article has become a “value-added luxury.” But I disagree — while real-time reporting is very powerful, we still need someone to make sense of those streams and put them in context. In fact, we arguably need that even more.

As anyone who has read my posts on social media and the future of media knows by now, I am a big fan of the way that social tools such as Twitter and Facebook and Flickr and YouTube have democratized the production of content of all kinds — journalism and non-journalism. The fact that those on the ground in Tahrir Square and in Libya can tell their own stories to some extent instead of relying on reporters from mainstream media outlets is hugely powerful. And so is the kind of journalism that Brian Stelter did from Joplin, and the way that Andy Carvin of NPR has been using Twitter as a live news-curation tool.

I am also a fan of the concept of “news as a process,” which Jarvis (whom I consider a friend) and others including Doc Searls and media consultant Terry Heaton have been promoting for several years: the idea that instead of something that is produced by media outlets as a kind of finished product, an artefact of an industrial-style approach to the news, journalism now is an ongoing and somewhat messy process. In many cases, rumors are reported, then they are confirmed or debunked over time, details and background and context are added, observers and experts and other sources comment, and so on.

To me, the idea that Twitter or any live-blogging process replaces any of the traditional elements of journalism or the news seems out of step with this concept (Note: Jarvis said that he doesn’t believe Twitter replaces journalism, just that stories are not always necessary). In the course of any news event, whether it’s an earthquake or a shooting or a revolution, there will be times when Twitter makes sense as a tool — as Stelter showed with his reports from Joplin, and as Sohaib Athar showed when he effectively became a journalist for a few hours during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. But that doesn’t obviate the need for articles or commentary or features.

Jarvis says that the article becomes a “luxury” or by-product of the important part of the process, which I guess is the live-tweeting or live-blogging. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. If anything, in fact, the kind of live reporting that Andy Carvin and others do with Twitter, and the kind Brian Stelter did in Joplin, increases the need for curation and context and background and reporting. Watching the stream of thousands of tweets that Carvin produced during the uprising in Egypt was fascinating and compelling, but it was also overwhelming in terms of the sheer magnitude of data.

In addition to the volume of information Carvin and others were producing, many people who wanted to understand that event probably weren’t on Twitter and weren’t experiencing that flood. Where were the reporters and editors to curate and make sense of that stream?

In his post, Jarvis describes how Postmedia — the Canadian publishing chain to which he is an advisor — had reporters filing Twitter reports live from the campaign trail during the recent Canadian election, with other writers and editors assigned to pull these together into stories. This seems like a smart model to me, and a throwback in some ways to the old days of the newspaper “rewrite desk,” when grizzled editors would take phone calls from correspondents in far-flung bureaus and then cobble those reports together into a story (an analogy Jarvis notes as well in his post).

Twitter doesn’t replace any other form of media or journalism, any more than YouTube replaces television, or Facebook replaces the need for normal human interaction. Twitter is just a tool, like the telephone or the video camera — it doesn’t replace the need for traditional journalists. It may make their jobs slightly different, but we still need people to curate and make sense of that stream. If anything, in fact, we need *more* of them, whether we call them journalists or not, as the amount of information we are trying to consume continues to increase.

Update: In a Facebook comment on this post, Jeff Jarvis takes issue with the headline of this post and some of the comments I make in it, which he describes as a “gross mischaracterization” of his views. In his comment he says:

I do *not* say that the article will no longer be necessary. I say that in some cases it will not be. Huge difference. I say that good articles add perspective and it is in that context that I say they are a luxury that can — and should — add value is hardly pejorative. You seem to fear that I am devaluing the article. I am doing the opposite. I say that articles must add value or we shouldn’t waste precious resources on them.

and later:

You are arguing with someone, Mathew. But it’s not me. I’d very much appreciate including this with the body of the post. That’s because I absolutely do not want to be accused of saying what you say I said. I didn’t say it. I don’t believe it.

Let me just say that I have a lot of respect for Jeff and his views on journalism and the media. However, I still think that by saying articles are in many cases a “luxury” or a “by-product” of live reporting through Twitter and other tools, Jeff is not placing enough emphasis on the context and analysis that articles can provide after the fact. I guess we will have to agree to disagree.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Luc Legay and George Kelly

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