09 June, 2009

Tweeting: Behind the Headlines (Part 2)



An earlier version of this post first appeared @ the PBS website Mediashift, titled How Journalists Balance Work, Personal Lives on Twitter

Twitter is continuing to make headlines around the world as it amasses followers. But it's also making an impact on the newsmakers themselves. Journalists are invading the space at a rapid pace and learning to report live, crowdsource stories and engage with a whole new audience...in 140 characters or less.

It may not be revolutionary -- many journalists view the micro-blogging platform as just another tool in their kitbag -- but it is changing journalistic practice and raising important questions about ethics and professionalism. In fact, one of the key contemporary journalistic dilemmas -- how to define or redefine objectivity in the social media age -- is being played out live via tweets.

Part one of this investigation into tweeting journos was based on interviews with 25 journalists (mostly Australian) and informed by my own experience on the platform. In the aftermath of that article, I received many responses from journalists (and media outlets) via Twitter who also wanted to make a contribution. Their willingness to engage in debate on the issues and eagerness to participate in subsequent stories highlighted for me the significance and timeliness of this research, so I've decided to turn this two-part Mediashift series into a comprehensive trilogy.

In part two, I'll discuss the impact of Twitter on daily reporting and its challenges to traditional journalistic identity and professionalism as the private and the public spheres merge, further blurring the line between reporting and opinion.

Twitter's clash of the personal & the professional

In my view, while balance, fairness and accuracy remain important aspects of journalistic identity, definitions of objectivity that consider he said, she said news pieces to be the only valid form of journalism are narrow and anachronistic. Neither do I subscribe to the view that journalists should be didactic, colourless, un-opinionated, one-dimensional information processors.

But social media platforms encourage the merger of the private and public experiences of journalists and this is new territory for beings used to commenting on their subjects' lives rather than subjecting their own lives to scrutiny. As journalists, we now post pictures of intimate family moments on Facebook, we blog about tender and painful life experiences and respond to news posts with forceful opinions.

On Twitter -- a medium which is fleeting and frenetically paced -- we can find ourselves posting a link to a news story we've written one minute and writing a reflective Haiku poem or making a witty life observation the next...at least that's my modus operandi. (For a different approach, consider Jay Rosen's Twitter mind-casting.

Gen Robey, editor of Wotnews, says keeping the personal and professional separate is increasingly difficult when you're trying to maximise the benefits of communities like Twitter, noting that, "The overlapping of the personal and professional, and thus the emphasis on trust and meaningful relationships, is often what makes Twitter so powerful."

While this practice makes us human and much more appealing to our followers and mainstream audiences, there are professional consequences to consider.

So how do professional journalists manage the merger of the private and the public, the personal and the professional on Twitter? And how much of themselves and their opinions do they reveal in trying to build relationships with audiences and sources? Of the 25 reporters I interviewed, some choose to acknowledge both private and professional purposes of their Twitter accounts to establish dual identity. Others chose to tweet only "off-the-clock" or "on-the-clock" and a few ran separate Twitter accounts to accommodate both the private and the professional.

One Australian journalist who's been forced to reassess his use of Twitter as a public platform for his personal views is the Sydney Morning Herald's technology writer Asher Moses. Moses was recently outed by the irreverent online news magazine Crikey for sexist comments he made on his Twitter account about a woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted by a team of professional footballers.



Crikey mistakenly attributed other quotes, about an unrelated matter, from a fake account in Moses' name, to Moses and has since apologised for that sloppy work. But the quotes above were made by the real Asher Moses and he told me he regrets the offending tweets.

"Although I wrote the tweet in my own time on a personal Twitter account," he said. "I used two words that in hindsight were inappropriate, particularly considering I mainly used Twitter for work-related messages. I quickly deleted the post, but by then it was too late and within a day I had Crikey ...breathing down my neck. The tweet still appeared in Twitter search. It's sad in a way, but you really have to assume that whatever you write is going to be viewed by the whole world and you have to be prepared for people to link your personal views to your employer."

Ironically, Moses has report on a government communications worker who risked his job with comments he wrote on Twitter and his blog. And while Moses' job wasn't threatened by the incident, he has changed his tweeting habits as a result of the experience.

"Up until recently I used it for both tweeting links to my stories and engaging in discussions -- not always work-related," he said. "But I'm fast finding that even though I have viewed Twitter as a personal space for my personal thoughts and opinions, readers can interpret what I say as the official Fairfax (owners of the SMH) line, which creates all sorts of complications. So after recent events I've decided to use Twitter purely for work-related messages."

In the midst of the storm that followed Moses' questionable tweeting, Jason Whittaker who edits a stable of trade magazines for Australian Consolidated Press defended Moses' right as a journalist to tweet his opinions and indulge in news commentary without endorsing his views.

"Do journalists who use Twitter have to be mindful of being in the public domain and project the same perception of objectivity as they do on the clock as a journalist?" he asked. "Even if they're commenting on matters they have nothing to do with as a journalist? Are readers capable of making the distinction? Can't they accept that journos are not mindless drones and DO have opinions, but this doesn't mean they can't do the job as an objective observer when on the clock?"

Whittaker initially began tweeting anonymously as @thetowncrier but, after considering the clash of the two spheres, he has since included in his Twitter bio his real name and a link to a blog which identifies his employer.

"I was HIGHLY reluctant to put my opinions in a public space, but I made the decision that I had things I wanted to say and I was comfortable with the separation between work and personal," he said.

The ABC's Michael Turtle has a pragmatic approach to this Twitter dilemma.

"The basic rules... should be the same as when writing as a journalist," he said. "You don't want to express personal opinions on sensitive issues because, even if your reporting is completely impartial. You don't want to open yourself up to accusations of bias."

Sky News' John Bergin separates his private and work Twitter accounts in an effort to manage these dilemmas. He has this advice for balancing the personal and the professional: "Think carefully about what 'hat' you're wearing when you share personal opinions and political views -- is it clear to others that you are speaking on behalf of yourself, or your employer? If you express an opinion on a news story, think about how this will be construed if you are then required to report on 'the facts' of the same issue at a later date."

Considering Privacy & Personal Safety

There are other reasons for journalists to be cautious about what they reveal on Twitter, or any other open social media platform. In the same way journalists may choose to have unlisted home phone numbers and addresses for privacy reasons, tweeting reporters need to consider their personal safety.

"I'm careful not to reveal too much about exactly where I live, and I rarely tweet about my wife," said Dave Earley, a reporter with the Brisbane Courier Mail. "She hasn't chosen for any aspect of her private life to be revealed online, so I mainly try to keep Twitter about me, with occasional references to family."



Leigh Sales is one tweeting Australian journalist who has managed to blend the personal and professional very well -- maintaining her credibility as the anchor of a respected ABC nightly news program while endearing herself to her audience by revealing a multi-dimensional character. She does this by largely restricting her tweets to news- or issues-oriented subject matter but employing wit and humour as short storytelling devices. What results is a very effective blend of serious observations with a news stand-up routine -- Twiticism. And humour is a humanising quality which Sales says helps "make the medicine go down" -- the medicine being the serious news she's tweeting about or linking to.

"If you can be interesting and engaging, then people will follow you more readily than if you're dry," she said. "If you're those things, people RT you or recommend you to their friends."

How is Twitter Changing Journalism

Twitter is both a venue for discussion about the future of journalism and a feature of the discussion. Some see it as a symptom of the demise of the fourth estate, others see it as part of the plan for professional journalism's salvation in an age of rapid technological, economic and industrial change. It's certainly one way to merge news dissemination and increasingly necessary audience engagement. It's also a natural online home for inherently inquisitive and dialogue-oriented journalists like Caroline Overington, a writer with Rupert Murdoch's national daily The Australian.

"I find Twitter to be a more friendly media site than the blogs, which tend to be full of bile," she said. "That may be because it's real people. It's a kind spot on the web."

At a practical level, Twitter is changing how journalism is practiced. Tweeting is fast becoming necessary for journalists and even compulsory in some news organisations. Some journalists interviewed highlighted the ability of ‘retweets’ (RTs) – the practice of citing and re-distributing a tweet – to indicate the appeal of a story to a particular audience and guide the extent of coverage an issue gets, similar to the effect of talkback radio and news focus groups. And a few talked about Twitter’s ability to make news-gathering processes more transparent through journalists publicly processing reporting techniques and practices in real time. But the role of Twitter in breaking news was most frequently mentioned.

Breaking News on Twitter - Headlines on Speed

And it's not just a platform to cover already-broken news in easily digestible bites. It's also emerging as a zone in which to break news, as I highlighted in part one of this series.

An ABC case study neatly illustrates these points in the Australian context. Wildfires and an earth tremor near Melbourne, storms in Brisbane and a widespread blackout in Sydney put Twitter to the test this year as a breaking news device.



In early February, when Australia's deadliest ever bushfires raged around Victoria (they would ultimately claim 173 lives), Wolf Cocklin, a digital media developer with the ABC, shifted the network's Twitter accounts into high gear. As the ABC's Melbourne radio station commenced emergency 24 hour broadcasts, Mr Cocklin used the @774melbourne Twitter account to disseminate warnings and news alerts while monitoring the Twittersphere for eyewitness accounts and other information which could be checked and verified with officials before being broadcast.

"I never tweeted callers through to the radio station unless they were an attributable source," he said. This is a more strict approach than that adopted for talkback callers who are regularly put to air to describe their experiences and observations of disaster zones without their stories being properly checked. But Mr Cocklin says this approach may change as Twitter becomes more established as a feature of such broadcasts.

ABC Brisbane's Amanda Dell believes that Twitter is particularly pertinent to radio coverage of events.

"I find Twitter to be the best source of breaking news," she said. "When there was a minor earthquake in Melbourne recently, I knew about it seconds after it happened. It was at least 20 to 30 minutes before any of the online news sites had the information. In radio, that immediacy is a huge advantage."

Wolf Cocklin is adamant that journalists need to be on Twitter because of its role in breaking news coverage; he cites Twitter's role in reporting a recent large scale blackout in Sydney as an example.

"I was able to crowdsource the size and approximate location of the affected area in 5 minutes, faster than calling 100 people to ask them if their power was out," he said.

ABC Online's Gary Kemble agrees, saying Twitter is invaluable for alerting media outlets to breaking stories and that the ABC has decided to break news first on Twitter ahead of its own website: "We use the @abcnews service to post 'breaking news' alerts. It's faster than our CMS, so we can get the info out there faster, in the first instance, by using Twitter."

Fact-Check First, Tweet Second

Twitter is news headlines on speed. But despite the pressure of an unrelenting 24/7 news cycle, most of the journalists I interviewed expressed caution about blind reliance on Twitter for crowdsourcing coverage during breaking news events. Paramount -- particularly during disasters -- was concern about accuracy and public safety, as John Bergin of Sky News noted.

"Twitter may have accelerated the means by which we can source information, but that doesn't mean that Sky News, or any other news outlet, should incorporate crowdsourced versions of events or comments without holding them up to careful scrutiny first," he said.

Nevertheless, Sky has incorporated Twitter into disaster coverage.

"In the case of the Melbourne tremor we used Twitter, along with viewer emails and phone calls, to inform viewers of what was happening prior to the release of any formal information from Geosciences Australia," said Bergin.

ACP's Jason Whittaker agrees, saying traditional reporting principles still need to be applied to Twitter.

"An account from a witness on Twitter is little different to interviewing someone over the phone or at the scene of an event and using this account to build a story," he said. Such information must be scrutinised just as much as traditionally sourced material. "It must be verified, checked against other sources, and treated with a degree of scepticism. Too many journalists are being caught out online by not doing enough checking of the facts, and Twitter is no different," he said.

While the old rules of fact checking prior to publication and awareness about the public and professional consequences of private actions remain good guidelines for tweeting journalists, Twitter has raised a new set of professional and ethical questions. For example: What's fair game for reporters on the platform? Is everything said in this public space reportable and on the record? Do you need to get permission from a tweeter to quote one of their tweets in a piece of traditional journalism? How much of an additional burden is daily tweeting on already overloaded journalists? And what's the impact of constant tweeting on their capacity to produce considered, original journalism?

I'll attempt to answer some of these questions in part three of this series which will focus on an examination of the "rules of engagement" for tweeting journalists as media outlets begin to establish guidelines and codes of conduct applicable to the platform. I'll also canvas the ways in which journalists are self-regulating their tweeting and provide practical tips for those just starting out on Twitter -- along with those more experienced tweeters who are still grappling with some of the issues discussed here.
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[ *The opinions expressed by j-scribe reflect those of the author only and in no way represent the views of the University of Canberra ]