Journalists and Twitter: An Academic Study

Normalizing Twitter: Journalism Practice in an Emerging Communication Space

As I sought out a recent academic article to summarize pertaining to Twitter, I had two hopes: (1) that the article would have some explanation about the way Twitter is used in general and (2) that the article would be specific about how Twitter is used by journalists.  As a new Twitter user studying new journalism, both facets would be significantly informational and relevant for me.  The above referenced piece by Lasorsa, Lewis and Holton (2012) perfectly fit the bill.

I’ve had my own Twitter account for about a year. And I’ve used it only maybe once until recently. I have relied on Facebook and finally feel like I have a decent command on its functionality and how I can capitalize on it to communicate and disseminate personal and school-related information. I haven’t been in the news business for over a decade. I haven’t understood the need or use of Twitter, and I haven’t really had to.  Now that I’m in graduate school, I’ve been hearing that Twitter has become pretty popular without me. Now I see why.

Aside from a pretty simple explication of Twitter’s history and the general way it has evolved to become a fairly significant news source (and thereby opening my eyes in the process when I had previously thought the application was largely a glorified “status update” vehicle), this article is very telling about the specific ways that journalists are capitalizing on Twitter’s functionality.

The study conducted a content analysis of results posted on Muck Rack of the 500 most-followed journalists on Twitter. In the content analysis, the authors first sought to determine how Twitter has normalized within the journalism field. According to their literature review, one of the four basic functions now being credited to Twitter is as a news source. Clearly, journalists and communications professionals in general have learned that Twitter’s design and nature lends itself perfectly to relating the news. The 140-character limit on tweets smacks of a news headline. And the capability for journalists to use Twitter for their personal distribution of news and allowing them to evade editors and other traditional impetuses to expression of news has certainly encouraged their use and firmly normalized the tool. Beyond this, it’s interesting to see how the authors were able to characterize the journalistic use of Twitter.  They break down their findings into three categories.

First, the authors present findings pertaining to the tendency or likelihood of journalists to break journalistic tradition and use Twitter to opine.  The ethics of editorial or partisan comment on behalf of those who report the news has been historically debated.  Generally and historically, a reporter expressing his personal stance or opinion has been railed against and frowned upon. However, times have changed. The authors of this study found that not only do reporters opine on Twitter, they do it frequently. As much as 27% of the tweets analyzed for the study indicated either a direct expression of opinion or opinion-related content being conveyed by journalists.

A second category of scrutiny in this study was the changing nature of the gatekeeping function typically reserved for professionals when it comes to disseminating news. According to results of this study, reporters are now sharing that gatekeeping responsibility with consumers and even professionals in other fields by retweeting what others have tweeted.  In the process of retweeting, journalists allow information to be communicated to the public that they themselves are not releasing as proprietary information. In other words, the audience gets to share in the filtering process—as much as 15% of the time according to study results.

Last, the authors of this study considered how Twitter has amplified the transparency and accountability factor which should generally be attributed to journalism professionals.  When it may have been difficult in former versions of journalism to reveal specific source information or information consulted in composing a story (especially in television or radio news which enforces strict time limitations), Twitter allows a reporter to do precisely that with the linking functionality. By linking other sources to their 140-character post, journalists are able to corroborate what they post.  The authors established that as much as 42% of journalists posts on Twitter contain a link, very clearly demonstrating how the site furthers journalistic transparency and accountability efforts.

In sum, this article was very educational in its description and characterization of how journalists use Twitter.  Having become one of the most active outlets for news in modern society, it’s clear that Twitter has contributed to journalism but that it has somewhat changed the business as well.  Offering personal opinion as is done on Twitter is not one of the most traditional activities of journalists in days past.  But in the realms of the expanded gatekeeping role and a greater sense of transparency and accountability, at least, it seems that Twitter might could actually be bringing journalism forward to a new, higher standard.

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