Sizing up the Mighty Tweet

Journalists weigh Twitter’s benefits and risks.

By Kate Howell

Journalists weigh Twitter’s benefits and risks

By Kate Howell

Tim Bousquet, at his desk in the Coast office, sifting through his Twitter feed. (Photo: Kate Howell)

Alex Boutilier thought the issue was important and he investigated different angles. The reporting, he believed, was fair. Nevertheless, his editor almost scratched the story.

When Frank magazine unexpectedly fired three reporters in June 2011 it hit Boutilier close to home; the journalism community is tight-knit and layoffs are amplified in a smaller city. Boutilier knew the story would go unreported in the Halifax Metro unless he covered it.

He wrote a 135-word piece. Though brief in print, Boutilier recalls being vocal on Twitter about the Frank editor firing most of the newsroom. In retrospect, he says he should have held back on his tirade.

Even if a printed story is fair and accurate, baring emotion on Twitter can compromise fairness and spawn bigger problems.

“You don’t want to sacrifice your credibility as an honest reporter for the sake of one, albeit cathartic, outburst on Twitter,” Boutilier says.

He is one of many who have pushed the journalistic boundaries  of social media. In August 2012 Yahoo! News fired its Washington bureau chief David Chalian for tweeting a sarcastic remark about U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife. During the 2012 Olympics, Twitter suspended British reporter Guy Adams’ account at the request of NBC, after he published an NBC executive’s email address.

The integration of journalism and social media is an ever-expanding grey area because news organizations can’t agree on how it should be done. Rules for reporters can be strict due to their obligation to remain objective. Reporters are expected to be active on social media, yet newsroom guidelines about how are not yet fully set.

In July 2012 Phil Corbett of the New York Times told the Poynter Institute’s digital media fellow Jeff Sonderman guidelines aren’t enforced because they prevent journalists from becoming comfortable with social media. The following October, Corbett forwarded clear principles to staff and freelancers after freelancer Andrew Goldman and author Jennifer Weiner exchanged blows on Twitter.

Boutilier’s hiccup helped mould his personal social media guidelines. He says in light of the extensive research needed to cover issues, maintaining a neutral viewpoint is naïve. Nevertheless, judgments made on Twitter can be effective.

 “I don’t think it’s totally advisable to go blasting off on every issue …  but if you think it’s important and can generate a discussion then you aren’t doing your readers any service by holding that back,” says Boutilier, who now reports for Metro in Ottawa.

Other reporters believe expressing opinion on Twitter, especially when related to your beat, is like walking into a minefield.

[pullquote]

It’s a fantasy to be objective; it is not a fantasy to be accurate and fair.

– David Akin, national bureau chief for Sun Media [/pullquote]

Jacques Poitras is well known for his political coverage in New Brunswick for CBC. Aware of his Twitter followers’ interest in provincial politics, he tries not to clutter their feeds with unrelated posts. When he occasionally tweets about other interests, he watches his tongue.

“If I said I like (U.S. President Barack) Obama better than (Mitt) Romney or Romney better than Obama, they might infer that I’m more left-wing or more right-wing and then assume that there’s a bias that’s reflected in my work in New Brunswick politics.”

Poitras says there is a little more leeway with topics outside of his beat, though he still proceeds with caution.

Poitras was a kid when the Montreal Expos won the National League East in 1981. When he read a tweet approving Montreal’s recent decision to name a street and a park to honour catcher Gary Carter, he wanted to pass it along but added a “+1” in front of the retweet to distance himself.

“Here’s a little bit of a glimpse of my soul for people who are into that thing,” he says, “and I can do it without telling them what I think.”

Most newsroom guidelines insist reporters refrain from voicing opinion in case this in some way compromises their credibility. Many journalists feel obliged to clarify in their Twitter bios that tweets are not reflective of their news organization and that retweets are not endorsements.

Paul McLeod is more relaxed and social in his Twitter use than most journalists covering Ottawa politics. As the bureau chief for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, he thinks people take Twitter too seriously.

“For the most part, employees can only speak for themselves,” says McLeod. “I think it would be asinine for anyone to read into anything I tweet as being reflective of the Chronicle Herald.

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Twitter is a stadium for expression and everyone gets to hold the microphone. Journalists using the platform embody what it means to juggle personal and professional life. Before social media, concerns over balance might have led to worry about what statement a bumper sticker makes when parked in a private driveway. Now, opinions and biases can be publicly known faster than ever before, and a mindless comment or a cathartic outburst can compromise credibility.

Trevor Adams says there’s no difference. There’s no such thing as absolute impartiality.

 “I think it’s foolish to pretend we don’t have biases. I think it’s important to be aware of what they are and why we have them,” says Adams, who edits Halifax magazine.

Opinions about objectivity may be bending, but reporters are still expected to omit any bias from coverage.

Reporters are increasingly being asked to be more analytical, says David Akin. He says this can’t compromise long-held ethical standards. Akin, the national bureau chief for Sun Media, is an experienced reporter and columnist.

“It’s a fantasy to be objective; it is not a fantasy to be accurate and fair. And you can be both fair and accurate and not necessarily objective,” says Akin.

Objectivity is invaluable to the reporting process. Akin says bias can be used as a starting point. “Re-examine that bias and see if it holds up to scrutiny if you test it.”

Steve Buttry is an American digital media teacher and blogger who often writes about journalism and Twitter usage. In February 2012 made this recommendation:

“If the argument for objectivity is that it builds trust and credibility, take a look at polls reflecting how the public trusts journalists and tell me how that’s working.”

Canadian polls reflect similar sentiments. In June 2012 an Ipsos Reid poll showed how little the public trusts professionals in the media industry. Of about 1,000 people surveyed, only 31 per cent of Canadians said they trusted journalists, and radio and television personalities.

Take a look at the Twitter accounts of the journalists featured in this story. Written in black are the dates they each joined Twitter. The right column shows the user’s number of tweets, followers and people they follow. Their employers are highlighted in yellow. Written in red are the number of users following their employers.

 

Cue Twitter.

Hilary Beaumont is a freelance journalist based in Halifax. She says Twitter is a common ground for journalists to build rapport with readers. “Twitter allows your readers to ask you questions about bias as well, which is really important. It helps transparency.”

Alfred Hermida, a digital media professor at the University of British Columbia, says Twitter is inverting the news model in making the reporting process, which was once behind closed doors, more communal.

“When you turn journalism inside out, you have to earn that trust every day,” says Hermida.

Twitter facilitates an unprecedented level of mutual access and engagement between journalists and readers. Hermida says acknowledging the audience helps build trust.

“Suddenly, on Twitter, if you as a journalist respond to your audience, the message you’re sending is, ‘I’m listening’ and that’s a remarkably powerful message to send to your readers.”

Akin, the Sun Media national bureau chief, points out how reporters shouldn’t fall into the appealing trap of poking fun at politicians and making light of topics they discuss. When he covers meetings in the House of Commons, the sometimes painful boredom of Question Period tempts him do just that.

“You need to be able to carry on serious discussions with a wide variety of people from our society. It’s probably best if you don’t have a track record online of making fun of a certain group in that society.”

More and more, reporters are testing the waters of analysis and commentary when covering issues via live tweets — some with a healthy dose of sarcasm.

Tim Bousquet of the Coast started using Twitter before most newsrooms picked it up. The social network was just gaining popularity after its 2009 surge in users and its use in daily life was being explored. 

Rather than twiddle his thumbs or make small talk, the news editor at Halifax’s urban weekly the Coast started tweeting at municipal council meetings to pass the time.

Bousquet’s sense of humour can be fairly sinister. To entertain himself and his then small audience of followers, he began live-Tweeting council meetings with a satirical flair.

“It became much larger than I ever anticipated it to be,” said Bousquet, who now has more than 4,900 followers. “It gets people interested and involved in local politics that otherwise would not be.”

Bousquet recognizes writing for a publication as liberal as the Coast grants him a certain freedom, although he disagrees that satire harms journalistic standards. He says readers are smarter than the credit they are often given.

 “I think people know what satire is. They know what journalism is and the same person can do both.”

It’s about balance. A tweet can be taken out of context, but hashtags and follow-ups can help indicate tone. More often than not, the journalist’s voice is a guide.

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Within a media outlet’s readership, Twitter followers represent a small demographic. The Canadian Media Research Consortium provides data on media and communications in Canada. Their April 2011 poll found that only 36 per cent of Canadians, most of whom are young adults, value social networks as news sources. Compared to the 82 per cent who value televised news and the 79 per cent who hold online publications in the same regard, social media’s demographic is pretty small.

But, even as a little guy, Twitter provides print journalists with an opportunity that those working in broadcast have had for years: to build a public persona.

It also allows journalists to be recognized in their own right for their own work and their own voice.

Whichever approach a journalist takes, just having an active online presence and showing some personality strengthens their bond with the audience, argues Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman.

“It’s good for us to know the people who are creating the news and for it not to just be a feed of stories from an institution,” he says.

Boutilier agrees; if being personal on Twitter helps engage readers, it’s worth the trouble.

“If you can make (politics) entertaining for people, if you can make difficult, challenging and, at times, controversial material enjoyable for readers to consume, enjoyable for people to educate themselves about, I can’t see too many downsides to that.” 

Published Jan. 2013