Twitter and its impact on journalism

Nic Dawes is the editor of the Mail & Guardian, one of South Africa’s most respected newspapers. Memeburn sat down with him to discuss whether tweets are on-the-record, the effect that Twitter is having on the reporting of news, and whether or not he thinks it’s a good thing.

MB: Can the news be reported in 140 Characters?

ND: Yes. Of course. It has been since the days of the telegraph. But ultimately the short bursts need to be supplemented with context and detail. Twitter posts on a topic, when viewed in aggregate, can provide a surprising amount of detail, but support by longer forms remain crucial.

MB: Does Twitter enhance the art of reporting?

ND: Yes. It is a source of story tip-offs and information, it is a global network of sources, and a sounding board. It also inserts journalists into a community of information and opinion exchange which, when properly handled, greatly strengthens their work.

Used cleverly it also provides a superb, personalised content filter — and the right reading list makes us all better at our jobs.

MB: How does Twitter negatively impact journalism?

ND: It can make readers satisfied with the empty calories of bite-sized news, which leaves them bloated and uninterested in the more nutritious meal offered a click away. It can also shorten the attention span of journalists, who need to be careful not to devote so much attention to quick tweets that they miss crucial connections or let their analytical capacities lapse. It can also mean that they start to think of their audience in terms of the relatively narrow (in South Africa) demographic that uses Twitter.

MB: In what order do you check the following in the morning: Newspaper, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, web?

ND: Twitter/email (because both are on my blackberry)/ newspaper/ web. Facebook I check about once a week, and I really just respond to friend requests and clean up my inbox.

MB: What value does Twitter add to your news operation?

ND: On a news level, as I have mentioned, it helps with tip-offs, sourcing, alerting us to breaking stories, and a sense of one slice of public opinion. It also makes us part of a networked news community that includes other journalists, bloggers, ordinary readers, public officials, sports stars, entertainment world figures and politicians. It helps to turn us from an oracular source to an active participant in that community.

MB: Many people still view their tweets as just thoughts, or off-the-record but that is changing as Twitter goes more mainstream. Should you be held accountable for all that you tweet?

ND: Yes. Twitter is definitively on the record, and indexed by google. Arguably protected tweets are off the record.

MB: Does your news organisation have a social media policy in the newsroom governing how your journalists tweet and facebook?

ND: We don’t have a hard-and-fast policy, but we ought to.

MB: How does a journalist manage their personal and professional persona on Twitter and other social networks, where these aspects of life essentially converge?

ND: Hopefully with care. Most of my tweets are clearly related to my work as the editor of the M&G, which I think is what my followers want. I tweet about upcoming stories, the editorial process, and the kind of political issues that are of interest to the M&G community. At present, of course, I use Twitter as an ancilliary venue for activism around media freedom (along with submissions to parliament, work in Sanef (South African National Editors Forum), public debates, and other platforms).

I do tweet about some of my personal interests occasionally — principally interesting books, good food, wine, and bicycles, because I think our readers have wide interests, and I don’t think it’s a bad idea to vary the tone and subject from time-to-time. I never tweet about my family and friends or day to day banalities, and I am careful about the subjects I express an opinion on, even when they are close to my work, because it is important for me to maintain working relationships with a broad range of people.

MB: When a journalist tweets breaking news, they often don’t have the whole story. How do you ensure the accuracy of the information?

ND: Personally I rarely tweet breaking news, and my principle is that if the story isn’t potentially harmful or defamatory, and I have a very good source I’ll say its unconfirmed. I’ll then get a second source and follow up with a confirmation. In the case of the death of Eugene TerreBlanche I didn’t tweet anything until I had two good sources.

MB: Privacy is harder than ever to preserve in the digital age. Where does one draw the line on what’s on or off record?

ND: Everything on Twitter is on the record, unless you protect your tweets, and even then it is “recorded” and you should expect, like email, that it could come back to haunt you.

As Scott McNeally famously said: “You have no privacy, get over it”, or stay off social networks.

MB: CNN fired senior journalist Octavia Nasr for this tweet: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hezbolla’s giants I respect a lot.” What do you make of their reaction?

ND: I think it was a risky tweet for Nasr, knowing the views of her employer and of a section of her audience. This opinion may have required more context than what is available on Twitter, and which she later provided. On the other hand, that’s exactly why it was also a mistake to fire her — the context could have been provided, and a policy on Twitter use announced. In the event, her sacking ended up suggesting hypocrisy on CNN’s part. She’d never have gotten the boot for saying the same of Ronald Reagan, for example.

MB: Earlier this year, you crowdsourced stories for your newspaper via Twitter — what did this experiment reveal and would you do it again?

ND: We crowdsource information on an ongoing basis through our website and Twitter. My experiment was around reaction to an approach I wanted to take on the cover. It was informative, it engaged the Twitter community, and I would certainly do it again. That said, reaction informs our judgement, rather than replacing it.

MB: Have any of your journalists ever done an interview via Twitter, and would you encourage this?

ND: No, but Chris Roper [Online Editor] has reviewed books and records hilariously via Twitter. I think as an interview mode it’s a bit gimmicky. I think verbal interviews, with lots of flexibility for thrust and parry, are by far the best way to solicit interesting answers.

MB: Has one of your journalists sourced a story off Twitter?

ND: We are alerted to stories regularly by Twitter, and I often ask people to follow up on things I’ve seen in my Twitter stream.

MB: Do you quote from Twitter on a regular basis? What has been the impact of this on stories reported?

ND: Occasionally, but not often. Generally the impact is to add additional voices to the coverage, and journalism almost always benefits from a diversity of voices.

MB: How do journalists manage their professional/personal persona? For example, they write a new piece then project a personal opinion on it via a social network to their friends? Is this problematic? What is the solution?

ND: Again, I think the principle is that everything on Twitter is for the record, and you have to be prepared to defend anything you say on social networks in terms of your professional values. Journalists have special responsibilities in relation to the management of information and opinion, which they need to manage carefully. Specific policies are a start, but ultimately what is required is a sense of vocation, reputation, and the values of your news organisation.

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