By Daniel Van Oudenaren
Live-tweeting is a common practice in journalism in which a reporter attending an event shares short updates, observations and quotations of the participants. Typically these are written on a mobile phone and may be accompanied by photographs.
Live-tweeting is valued by many news organizations because it is a way of breaking news fast, directly from the reporter to an audience, without going through intermediate editorial steps that could slow down the flow of information.
Certainly, speed is to be valued in journalism, but it is not the only journalism value. The benefits of live-tweeting need to be weighed against the negatives, of which there are many.
1. It is difficult to convey what is most important
It is true across print, radio, and television forms of journalism that the order of presentation of information is crucial in conveying meaning and a hierarchy of importance. The journalist’s role is to distill information into an accessible form that first points the reader, viewer, or listener to the heart of the matter, then invites him to absorb more details, nuance, or context. Sequence matters. The headline cannot come after the lede. The lede cannot come after the second paragraph. In radio, the clips will not make sense without a lead-in.
“Burying the lede” is a phrase that editors use to describe articles that fail to put the most important part of the story in the opening paragraph and instead stick it somewhere later in the story where a reader is less likely to see it and grasp its central importance.
Twitter is an entire medium of burying the lede. It brings followers into the conversation midway through, depending on when they log on. It may expose a follower first to a tweet midway through your thread, for example, or perhaps a quotation of only minor importance, or a detail of relevance but not of crucial importance.
2. It fuels online polemicism
The rancor of political debate on Twitter is so infamous by now that it is hardly worth mentioning. What is perhaps less understood is how journalists themselves have played a major role in fueling this problem by privileging Twitter as a medium for their own discourse and reporting.
Twitter lends itself toward fragmented conversations that are easily manipulated into sensational soundbites. Few people will know how to rip sound off a broadcast on the NPR website or how to splice apart a video in order to get at a mere fragment of that report. But everyone will know how to retweet those clips if news organizations themselves splice apart everything into tiny, shareable fragments.
On Twitter, this is what journalists are doing to their own copy (written reports). Each tweet produced exists as a unique url. It is uniquely shareable and may show up in many thousands of users’ news feeds as a distinct statement devoid of any context. Live-tweeting has a centrifugal effect that takes the narrative, story-telling power out of the hands of the journalist and pulls it in a thousand possible directions.
Of course, any Twitter user can easily copy-paste any single sentence out of a digital news report into a Tweet and in this way make it into a ‘fragment’ just as if it had been tweeted in that form originally. Yet even this step is significantly more involved than simply clicking retweet or ‘like’ on an existing tweet.
Instead of indulging a practice that makes it easy for our words to be abused or misunderstood, fueling simplistic polemics, we journalists should instead cultivate practices that allow us to share coherent narratives.
3. It is an impoverished narrative form
If journalism is about storytelling – narrative – then live-tweeting is a form of narrative that is particularly impoverished. Even if the content of what one has to say on Twitter is brilliant and engrossing, the manner in which it is delivered detracts from the content massively.
By design, journalists’ tweets end up mixed in with those of thousands of other people. One can’t guarantee at which point in a thread a follower will begin to see one’s tweets, and one has no control over the responses and interruptions followers may see from others on Twitter. This is a little like trying to tell a campfire story to a thousand people, all of whom are allowed to interrupt whenever they like.
Unless your Twitter followers bother to read through your entire thread all at once, they are likely to see your live-tweets one at a time, perhaps as they check back on Twitter now and then throughout their day, with interruptions from other things going on in their life and in their feed.
This is a highly unusual and ineffective way of trying to convey a message or story. Imagine if you were to take ten powerful, prize-winning, magazine-length feature articles and cut each one apart paragraph by paragraph, then mix up all the clippings, then paste them back together in random order. The experience of reading that would not be the same as reading those features individually. It would be terrible.
4. It is bad for the business of journalism
Every journalist live-tweeting events on Twitter is providing free and valuable content to Twitter. It’s the aggregate of this content that is provided by journalists and others to Twitter that attracts users to the site and keeps them coming back. By posting exclusive content to Twitter rather than another interface – for instance a proprietary live blog – journalists are giving away their most valuable resource. Is this where your institutional loyalty lies as a journalist – with Twitter more than your own newspaper or broadcaster?
5. It is bad for the bond between editor and reporter
The relationship between editor and reporter is critical to the success of any large journalism organization. This isn’t just because reporters need an editor as a babysitter looking over their shoulder to tell them where to dot their Is and cross their Ts and lending his infallible wisdom. It is also because editors encourage, advise, and stand up for reporters.
“The reason journalists today love Twitter so much is that it provides them with instant validation – validation that they’re lacking from newsroom leaders.”
Journalists crave validation. Publishing is scary, especially when there is a lot on the line – a controversial finding, a major scoop, a tough ethical decision, or just an article or a radio item that a reporter has worked on for very many hours and wants to know that all that work hasn’t been for naught. It’s the job of the editor to be a companion, a supporter, and a champion of the reporter through this process.
The reason journalists today love Twitter so much is that it provides them with instant validation – validation that they’re lacking from newsroom leaders: Likes, retweets, and comments. This isn’t intrinsically a bad thing – direct feedback from readers/listeners/viewers is always nice and usually quite helpful. But it’s no replacement for long-term, deeply personal, deeply collegial relationships.
When a young journalist sits at an event and spews out tweet after tweet with no editorial guidance from newsroom peers or supervisors about how to quote, where to cut, what to ignore, what to emphasize, etc., what this journalist is really learning is that he’s alone. This is not healthy for the profession. It leads to a culture of atomized individualism rather than robust collegiality. And we are already the worse off for it.