The yin and yang of Twitter and journalism

January 28, 2019

Last week, Farhad Manjoo wrote a column entitled “Never Tweet,” in which the New York Times writer argued that Twitter is toxic for journalists, and that we should disengage from it as much as possible. “Twitter is ruining American journalism,” he said bluntly. The column sparked been plenty of commentary agreeing with him (much of it on Twitter, ironically). But there has also been a significant amount of pushback—and not just from the usual Twitter-addicted cohort, but journalists from a variety of backgrounds, who see it as a valuable reporting tool. For example, HuffPost writer Ashley Feinberg said in an interview on CJR’s Galley discussion forum  that while Twitter may be a nightmare for journalism, “it’s also allowed for some things that probably wouldn’t exist without it.” She continued:

Whether we like it or not, Twitter is a huge part of how we do our jobs now, and you can either accept that it’s a necessary nightmare or you can try to pretend there’s some healthy way to use it. Either way it’s still going to be hell. I think the best thing any of us can do is realize that someone is always going to be mad, some people are always going to be acting in bad faith, and there’s really nothing we can do to game that, other than just being as honest as possible.

City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis also disagreed with Manjoo’s piece, and expanded on why in an essay he published on Medium today, entitled “Journalism is the conversation. The conversation is journalism.” A journalist’s duty, he said, is “to listen to the public they serve,” and then bring journalistic value (reporting, facts, explanation, etc.) to the public conversation about those issues. Also, Jarvis criticized Manjoo and CNN media writer Brian Stelter—who wrote a piece agreeing with much of what the New York Times writer said—for making their comments “from a position of extreme privilege.” It is fine for journalists with a public platform to make such pronouncements, Jarvis said, but Twitter serves a very real purpose for many others who don’t have such a platform for the issues they care about:

If you are an African-American who is shopping or barbecuing or eating lunch or going into your own home when a white person calls the police on you, you do not have a newsroom of journalists who look like you who will tell your story. The outlet you have is a hashtag on Twitter. These stories are now, finally, making it into mainstream media only because #livingwhileblack exists as a tool for those forever unrepresented and unserved by mass media.

(Note: We’re discussing this post on Galley if you’d like to join in)

Jarvis is seen by some as an apologist for technology companies, in part because CUNY’s News Integrity Initiative project is funded primarily by Facebook, and because he often argues that journalists should do more to learn about technology and social networks instead of shunning them. But his point is a good one: even though Twitter is clearly dysfunctional in many ways, and encourages all kinds of bad behavior not just in journalists but in society at large, it still has powerful benefits when it comes to publicizing things that might not otherwise get attention from the mainstream media. Without Twitter, would movements like #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo have gotten anywhere near the kind of traction they did? Likely not, as media writer Ron Mwangaguhung pointed out in our Galley discussion.

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ICYMI: A brutal week for American journalism

Developer and entrepreneur Dave Winer, whose RSS technology was crucial to the rise of blogging and podcasting, argues that instead of turning its back on technology, the media industry should make up for its past mistakes and use tech of all kinds to create the kind of level playing field that the social networks did—a playing field in which everyone can have a voice, not just journalists (something that CJR is trying to do on a small scale with Galley). Tech writer Simon Owens, meanwhile, argues that Manjoo is exactly wrong. Not only is Twitter not making journalism worse, he says it is actually making journalism better—”by exposing journalists to their readers and giving once-marginalized groups a chance to influence the media conversation”:

Farhad seems to assume that it’s obvious that the Covington debacle being brought to light by Twitter was a bad thing. It wasn’t. It exposed the casual, everyday racism that’s endemic in this country. It exposed the powerful preying on the powerless. And the idea that Twitter is the main source of outrage culture and the pushing of bogus narratives is ludicrous. Remember the caravan story? It was pushed completely by mainstream news. Fox News has built a multi-billion dollar business on generating manufactured outrage.

Even some of those who agree with Jarvis about the utility of Twitter, however, think his essay overlooks some of the built-in risks of the technology, especially when it comes to journalism and even discussion more broadly. Josh Young, a developer who helped create Galley and is working on it in partnership with CJR, argues that seeing Twitter as a simple tool that journalists can use to participate in discussion is naive, since the service also has its own internal agenda, as seen in the algorithmic filtering of posts, etc. And this kind of structural consideration, in many cases, “incentivizes bad behavior,” he says. Seeing anti-Twitter sentiment as just a case of “moral panic,” like the criticism of comic books or television, misses this crucial point.

So then, do we have to choose sides in this debate—whether Twitter is inherently bad or inherently good? Not really. In fact, the urge to unquestioningly accept one “hot take” over the other is probably one of the negative aspects of a Twitter discussion about any reasonably complicated subject. It’s entirely likely that Twitter, like so many other things the internet has brought us, is simultaneously hugely positive in many ways and hugely negative in other ways. Could we somehow arrange it so that we could have all the good aspects without the bad ones? Probably not.

ICYMI: Reuters publishes ethically questionable story

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.