How Should Journalists Use Twitter?

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In an article headlined, “Citizen Journalists Provided Glimpses of Mumbai Attacks,” The New York Times extolled the virtues of micro-blogging platform Twitter in a breaking-news situation like the one that played out in Mumbai:

The attacks in India served as another case study in how technology is transforming people into potential reporters, adding a new dimension to the news media.

At the peak of the violence, more than one message per second with the word “Mumbai” in it was being posted onto Twitter, a short-message service that has evolved from an oddity to a full-fledged news platform in just two years.

Those descriptions and others on Web sites and photo-sharing sites served as a chaotic but critically important link among people across the world — whether they be Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn tracking the fate of a rabbi held hostage at the Nariman House or students in Britain with loved ones back in India or people hanging on every twist and turn in the standoff while visiting relatives for Thanksgiving dinner.

Twitter, to be sure, has the advantage of mobility, and therefore immediacy. And yet the 140-character (or approximately twenty-word) limit on each Tweet, some say, is only the most obvious of the platform’s limitations—particularly when it comes to covering big, breaking news stories like the Mumbai attacks.

Our question for the week, then: What does Twitter add to the coverage of such stories? What does it subtract? David Letterman used to feature a segment called “Is This Anything?” in which a weird act would offer a quick performance, and the talk show host would then decide whether the act was “anything” or “nothing.” Is Twitter anything more than just a stupid human trick? Where does it—where should it—fit into the larger universe of Web-based journalism?

Every Tuesday, CJR outlines a news-related question and opens the floor for debate. For previous News Meeting topics, click here.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.