On quoting tweets

I had a stimulating series of email exchanges with an Ottawa Citizen journalist intern today on the topic of using Twitter as a source to obtain public reaction and sentiment. I’m seeing reliance on tweets creeping in to copy on an increasingly regular basis as news operations like the Citizen try to do more with less.
I’d like to hear your views on this.
First, have a look at the story, printed on page 2, lower left, in prime real estate, headlined: Team Sinclair or Team Rosie: Ottawa reacts to flag-bearer choice

Ottawa Citizen: By Karen Chen, OTTAWA — When the Canadian Olympic Committee announced women’s soccer team captain Christine Sinclair as the closing ceremony flag-bearer early Sunday morning, social media exploded wi (See the full text at http://www.ottawacitizen.com/sports/2012-summer-games/Team+Sinclair+Team+Rosie/7079873/story.html)

After reading the story, I emailed Karen and asked her these questions:

1) I can understand quoting tweets from the athletes, but why is what anyone else tweets (or blogs) now considered a legitimate source? Or news?
(2) What criteria do you use to choose which tweets are used in your story?
(3) Do you verify the identity of the twitterers before including
them in your story?
I realize social media has changed the way news is reported, but I would appreciate your views on these questions.”

Karen got back to me within minutes by phone and explained she’d been assigned to do a reaction piece, as she was told the topic was heating up on Twitter. As reporters always are these days, she was under deadline pressure and opted to use Twitter and a
blogger as her exclusive source, rather than the old tried and true method of heading to a sports bar and interviewing patrons.
She ran it by one of her journalism professors who said this:

“Twitter is, it seems to me, just an easier way to collect sentiment
than ‘man on the street.’ And it’s not scientific: God knows the people who post may not represent real life, which was the point of that LA Times reference; but it’s no less scientific than ‘man on the street’ or any other form of collecting info. Newspapers/media doesn’t have time to scientifically poll; when we want to capture what people
are thinking, Twitter is a fine shortcut. And as long as we make it clear that’s where it comes from (and therefore may not be scientific), why not?”

The LA Times article can be read here:
://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-critics-notebook-olympics-20120813,0,7386914.story

My response:

“Thanks Karen. I don’t necessarily disagree with your professor’s views. It certainly is a new way to gather a kind of sentiment and do it quickly. And while some folks in the industry judge it as lazy reporting, still others would deem it necessarily efficient in the era of lean newsrooms.
But I think we need to do a better job of helping readers trust that we’re reflecting TRUE sentiment. Your LA Times piece alludes to that:

‘”By the end of Day 1, if the social media was to be believed, the coverage was an unmitigated disaster, with American viewers howling their disappointment as they learned results from events that had not yet been televised. Except that it wasn’t and they weren’t. Or at least not really.”‘

I would argue that going to a pub (or any other public place for that matter) adds another and more trustworthy layer of credibility to the streeter. You’re face to face with a person and it’s a mini-interview, so there’s something at stake to be lost or gained by the interviewee. The sentiment gathered is bound to be more nuanced and thoughtful. When a person tweets or blogs, they are making a declaration of opinion at that second without the benefit or hindrance of reflection.
Have you ever tweeted something quickly then had a second thought immediately after sending it that you should’ve added or removed something? I certainly have. And you’re a journalist-in-training. Imagine the millions out there who don’t really put their brain in gear before turning their thumbs loose!
Bots can gather and quantify social media sentiment for us, if that’s what editors want. And they can do it faster and even identify tweets that are followed the most. Only humans can ask and see the full spectrum of reaction and sentiment when it’s required to be reflected. And then counter-react if necessary if the sentiment demands follow up.
All of this said, I love Twitter as a new tool for reporters, but like any tool, we need to use it responsibly. We also need to understand when what’s being tweeted and by whom is actually newsworthy. What Stephen Harper tweets about Canada’s flag bearer is news that clearly should be reported. But Sharon McCarney? Or anyone else without the benefit of perspective and knowledge? It’s certainly public opinion but without proper newsroom guidelines (which the Citizen does not have), you’re left to figure it out on your own.
That’s a hefty weight to put on the shoulders of any intern, no matter how talented she is! And you are to be commended for doing the best job you could do under the conditions.”

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?

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1 comment
  1. Dani-Elle Dube said:

    During the summer I came across a report on NBC’s the Today Show, and the reporter began listing tweets of randomly selected people according to their hash tags. This report got me thinking about the whole Twitter / Reporter relationship and it took me some time to form an opinion on this.

    1. In the case of the Ottawa Citizen reporter who stated that she was met with a tight deadline, I ask this: what did you do before Twitter when the same deadline was given to you? There was a time before Twitter, and tighter deadlines were met without the use of such a source.

    2. I find it acceptable to use Twitter for statements from official sources, like the Prime Minister. However, considering the Prime Minister must go through several of his people to get his tweets approved and translated into French, I still saying the old fashioned way of calling his reps or trying to catch him in the flesh to be the best. His Twitter response is carefully calculated and edited to a fine point instead of getting a raw response.

    3. Legal issues are involved when quoting someone without permission. What if the reporter had quoted someone with a screen name that mixed their first and last name? What if this person did not want to be used for a television report or newspaper article? What if this tweet could get this person in trouble with their family or workplace?

    4. Who is to say that the person who tweeted is, indeed, the person they claim to be? Anyone can create a Twitter account and claim to be a celebrity or expert, but there is no secure way of knowing.

    I say, Twitter is acceptable to get a general feel for the story and to anticipate responses, but no further than that. It is a starting point, but a story should not rely heavily upon it.

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