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The Twitter effect: We are all members of the media now

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 (s twx) 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 (s goog) 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 (s gci) 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 (s nyt) 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 (s aol) — 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 (s twx) 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.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jan Arief Purwanto Commons

9 Responses to “The Twitter effect: We are all members of the media now”

  1. Amarpreet Kalkat

    I am involved in building a product which leverages this exact concept to cull out those pieces of “social reporting” that would have possibly gone unnoticed otherwise.
    However, our thinking is that this “social reporting” or ‘democratization of media” is a complement for traditional media, not a replacement. The curation that can happen through “closed professional” media can not easily be matched by “open amateur” media, but the coverage of “open amateur” cannot be matched by “closed professional”. Both jostle for space, give or take a bit, but in the end, both coexist, and it is the consumer who now has more choice, and at the cost of consuming more information.

  2. This isn’t on the political spectrum, but I do think it’s interesting to note how social media has made the news cycle that much faster. When I was interning in London, news broke on Twitter of a “bomb threat” at one of the Tube stations. Everyone was scoffing at the media for not picking up the story, but it turned out to be nothing. It was nice for the people that used that Tube station (to know to avoid it on their commute home), but for everyone in London that got all in a fuss because there was a bomb threat in the city, it was too fast. The news media didn’t pick it up because they were waiting to see if it was actually newsworthy–which, to be honest, it really wasn’t. The faster news cycle can be great for some things, but for other situations it really is just unneccesary.

  3. jaime jaime

    I am a former reporter and news director from NPR-affiliated stations. I can tell you citizen-reporters often are faster and more accurate than the mainstream media. They can whine and complain all they want but they are doing it to themselves. They need to stop being mouthpieces of the Democrat National Committee and go back to some semblance of fair play and balance. I was always proud that both Republicans and Democrats would go after me. Nobody knew my personal politics. Now, it is easy to see the bias in reporting. Pretty darn sad.

  4. Scott D.R.

    Thank you.

    “One year it was a scientific toy with infinite possibilities of practical use; the next it was the basis of a system of communication the most rapidly expanding, intricate, and convenient that the world has known.”
    . . .

    “The result can be nothing less than a new organization of society – a state of things in which every individual, however secluded, will have at call every other individual in the community, to the saving of no end of social and business complications, of needless goings to and fro, of disappointments, delays, and a countless host of those great and little evils and annoyances which go so far under present conditions to make life laborious and unsatisfactory. The time is close at hand when the scattered members of civilized communities will be as closely united, so far as instant tele[tweet]ic communication is concerned, as the various members of the body now are by the nervous system.”

    The Future of the Telephone, Scientific American, January 10, 1880

  5. An interesting read, but I shy away from the idea that everyone is a journalist. Yes, everyone can share information, but as recent breaking events have shown not everyone has the discipline and training to verify what they are sharing.
    I’m waiting for the first round of Twitter-related defamation cases to really put a dent in so called community reporters.

  6. Adam Curtis debunks this really well in his new series, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace (BBC)

    Hope Matthew gets to see it. He’ll learn a lot.

  7. Matthis Drolet

    Journalism and traditional media are now going through a transition phase, just as the music industry has and the movie industry is. Those two industries fought, more or less intensively, against the change that the internet brought. Journalists have to realize that the change is coming, and fighting will only see them on the losing side. The purpose of journalism used to be getting news to the people. They are no longer needed for that; people are bringing news to the people and in a much more personal and up-to-date way than media conglomerates ever could. That leaves the journalists with one major advantage, they can be paid for detailed analyses and longer stories that add such things as historic context. They must stop wasting resources on trying to be first… they never can again with competition like twitter.