Twitter has been in the news a lot lately.
However, I’m not talking about Elon Musk’s $44 billion purchase of the platform in order to take it private and create a more robust arena for free speech, which highlights many misconceptions about how free speech is defined in terms of who grants it, what can be said, and what responsibilities and consequences it entails.
Instead, I’m talking about the news from the New York Times earlier this month. Because if it’s good enough for the Gray Lady, it’s good enough for me.
That’s why, as an assistant professor of media at Sterling College, one of the news outlets I look to for guidance about what I should be teaching my students is the New York Times, so when I caught wind of a “reset” in how the organization viewed Twitter use, I knew I needed to pay attention.
If you missed the news, let me catch you up. On April 7, Times executive editor Dean Baquet (who is retiring and will be succeeded by current managing editor Joseph Kahn on June 14) and deputy managing editor Clifford Levy sent out memos encouraging journalists to scale back their Twitter use.
“It’s clear we need to reset our stance on Twitter for the newsroom. So we’re making some changes,” Baquet wrote in his memo to the Times’ staff.
“We can rely too much on Twitter as a reporting or feedback tool — which is especially harmful to our journalism when our feeds become echo chambers. We can be overly focused on how Twitter will react to our work, to the detriment of our mission and independence,” Banquet wrote. “We can make off-the-cuff responses that damage our journalistic reputations. And for too many of you, your experience of Twitter is shaped by harassment and attacks.”
Now, maintaining a Twitter or other social media presence is explicitly optional for Times journalists. Though Twitter use has never been mandatory, there seems to have a cultural expectation to use the service within the newsroom.
Some online pundits have speculated that this new policy stems from the experiences of former New York Times staffer Taylor Lorenz, who went to the Washington Post after she experienced online harassment and didn’t feel supported by the Times.
Perhaps that was a catalyst, but the reasons for the “reset” make sense, which essentially boil down to the following:
- Twitter is a distraction that takes up too much time
- Bad tweets hurt the reputations of the journalists and the Times
- Twitter allows for online harassment and abuse
- Twitter distorts who journalists view as their audience, which can alter their reporting
Personally, I’ve never experienced harassment on Twitter, but I certainly see how the platform can be a distraction. Since it is my preferred social media platform, I know I’m guilty of endless scrolling instead of productivity.
Also, the reputational concerns are valid. A simple Internet search can bring up countless examples where an errant tweet damaged a reputation or ruined a career, even if the person posting it thinks they are being funny as Justine Sacco did in 2013 when she sent off an inappropriate tweet that resulted in her firing.
Of course, misunderstanding who the audience is also presents a pretty large problem. Clearly, that can cause important stories to be missed because of the filter bubbles or echo chambers that can easily develop on social media, which Baquet pointed out.
So when I first heard about this “reset,” I consumed as much content about it as possible. I had to know more because my knee-jerk reaction was this would precipitate a seismic shift in journalistic practices and necessitate some alterations to my ever-evolving curricula.
After I calmed down a bit and poured myself another cup of coffee, I started thinking more analytically.
Using Twitter in Journalism
First and foremost, I fully recognize Twitter and other social media platforms can affect our brains by serving up constant stimulation. That can be a problem, and it is why people have experienced benefits after logging off the services.
As educators, we need to encourage positive mental health, which entails providing guidance on how to avoid the negative effects of our digital world.
Directly relating to our roles as journalism educators, though, we need to understand the world of journalism. That’s why this news coming from the New York Times caught my attention.
As media scholar Patrick Ferrucci suggested in 2017, journalism education needs to remember the basics of journalism — such as reporting, writing, and critical thinking — because technology changes over time while the traditional skills continue to matter.
Despite this, research shows that using social media, such as Twitter, continues to be a key practice in journalism.
At one end of the Twitter-use spectrum, journalists can use the platform for networking, brand building, and digital identity curation. By sharing the work they’ve created and interacting with other users, journalists can develop a following. This can lead to notoriety and job opportunities.
But they have to prove themselves trustworthy, which requires effort. They can do this by consistently being accurate in their reporting via evidence, transparency and accountability, truth-telling, or by becoming opinion leaders, which has been shown to increase a person’s trustworthiness as others seek out information from them.
At the end of the day, it comes down to building relationships, and those relationships are the core of engagement, which is the other end of the Twitter-use spectrum.
In his 2015 book “Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences,” Jake Batsell outlines numerous ways this can happen. Likewise, “Journalism Next: A Practical Guide to Digital Reporting and Publishing” by Mark Briggs discussed engagement and specifically highlighted social media as a way to do it.
There’s even an entire movement around engagement, called engaged journalism. It’s another iteration of participatory journalism, which brings the audience into the news-production process by asking them to submit or otherwise create news content and disseminate it.
Though engaged journalism stems from public journalism, it’s the digital technology, such as social media, that has given it new life.
That’s because now there isn’t a gate between the citizens and the news that created a power imbalance. Now journalists and audience members are on a similar footing in terms of being able to create and disseminate content.
More importantly, though, everyone’s voice can be heard, even those who are typically marginalized. Social media amplifies those voices, and it allows individuals to talk to journalists. They can suggest news stories, provide tips and become sources. All they have to do is send a tweet, and if the journalists do their part in engaging and connecting with people, they can be more responsive to their audiences’ wants and needs.
Doing so helps the bottom line, too. As Batsell and Briggs both pointed out, journalism is a business, so cultivating a dedicated audience through engagement helps ensure people will continue to turn to a given news outlet for their information, which is crucial when an individual has so many options in our saturated media environment.
Of course, there is another segment of the Twitter-use spectrum that is more obvious and visible. That is using Twitter as part of the reporting process.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 50% of people get their news via social media. Though Facebook is the largest avenue for news, Pew Research also found that nearly 70% of Twitter users access news via the platform, making it an important space for journalists to leverage.
Doing so requires more than just sharing a link to coverage, though. Instead, journalists can use a platform like Twitter to report the news as it happens. This can be done, as scholar Farida Vis highlighted, by sharing links and photos, using hashtags, and providing nearly play-by-play breakdowns of a news event.
Clearly, social media platforms can be used as a reporting tool for a variety of coverage types, such as news, sports, entertainment, and more. The technology also allows journalists to incorporate different forms of storytelling, such as video. The now-defunct services of Meerkat and Periscope excited users, despite privacy concerns, and Facebook Live allows journalists to report news and interact with audiences in ways they hadn’t before.
As scholars Seth Lewis and Nicole Smith Dahmen argued in The Conversation, such technologies allow journalists to bring the news into the hands of consumers via their smartphones in a way that capitalizes on the visual nature of the Internet while working with citizens to contribute to the news reporting process.
Educational Implications of the Times’ ‘Reset’
In short, using social media and other digital technologies to tell stories in a variety of ways is important. That’s the idea behind convergent journalism, which requires journalists to be able to cross mediums and produce content for any platform.
As educators, we have a duty to ensure our students leave our programs with the basic knowledge necessary to work in such an environment in order to succeed in journalism in this day and age.
Thanks to the pervasiveness of technology, doing so doesn’t require a fortune and a truckload of fancy equipment. Thanks to the evolution of technology, everyone can do this kind of work with the smartphone they carry with them at all times. As media scholars Roxane Coche and Bejamin J. Lynn argued, “The best camera is the one you always have with you.”
Of course, research shows that not all student journalists are using digital platforms and social media services, such as Twitter, in the best way possible, so educators need to be more intentional about how they provide instruction about social media use.
That’s the main takeaway from the Twitter “reset” at the Times.
We need to be intentional. We need to be intentional about our instruction. Not just with Twitter or social media, but with everything we teach. We can’t just teach something because it is the “hot” thing. It needs to serve a valuable purpose and help build the capabilities of our students.
Even though the New York Times is an industry leader and its practices are worth paying attention to, it’s important to remember that the Gray Lady isn’t the entire industry.
Smaller outlets with fewer resources will continue leveraging the options available, especially as a way to make up for reduced staff sizes. Considering that the majority of students will not get a job at a place like the Times right out of the gate, educators must prepare students to be able to do a little bit of everything.
That means social media will play a role. No matter what.
Still, it’s about the basics.
In “Convergent Journalism: An Introduction,” Steven Chappel wrote, “Good reporting is still good reporting, regardless of the platform. Master writing skills (and this includes grammar and AP Style). Learn how to tell a good story. And learn the basic tools inside and out.”
That’s where our focus should be. We shouldn’t get distracted by the latest technological fad. Those shiny toys will come and go as technology evolves. Does anyone still have a MySpace page, miss Google+, or even remember Friendster?
What endures is good journalism.
And if good journalism is being produced, the credit shouldn’t go to a tool like Twitter. It should go to the journalist and the news outlet.
That’s another important takeaway from the “reset.”
In one of the memos, Banquet and Levy made it clear that journalists should not break news on Twitter. They should do so on the Times’ website and link to that coverage on Twitter.
We should stress the same to our own students.
The content-management systems in use make it easy to post from a phone or tablet, so the news should be published there first.
Briggs wrote about this, suggesting a live blog could easily be maintained by simply publishing a post and continually updating it. This provides a stable and permanent link to the coverage while still allowing reporting to continue, and that link can be posted on social media to give the audience a way to consume the content.
This is an important consideration because, as academic researchers Logan Molyneux and Shannon C. McGregor discussed, overusing Twitter to report the news erodes the authority journalists have in the reporting process.
“Audiences grant journalists authority over news to the extent they can see journalists vetting sources, interrogating them, verifying information, and finally communicating it,” Molyneux and McGregor wrote for Nieman Lab. “Reliance on Twitter has short-circuited this process. Now what we see is a feedback loop: As Twitter becomes embedded in journalistic routine, journalists turn to it during news events.”
Journalists work hard to develop their craft and become reputable and reliable sources of information, so that needs to be protected. Twitter and other tools can still be used, but the right balance must be struck.
A flexible approach is required. That’s what’s nice about the New York Times’ Twitter “reset.” It codifies that flexibility, giving each individual the agency to make their own decisions that work best for their reporting and careers and their health and safety.
So is this decision from the Times a huge deal for the industry?
No. Probably not.
But it does provide an opportunity to re-evaluate the importance we put on social media and other technologies in our curricula, and we’d be shortsighted not to take advantage of the chance.
And it won’t surprise me if this announcement by the Times makes other outlets feel like they have “permission” to make similar adjustments to how they view the work they do. The ripple effects will be interesting.