behind the news

Fort Hood: A First Test for Twitter Lists

In the aftermath of violence, lists suggest the benefits of collaboration
November 6, 2009

Journalism and curation—it’s becoming increasingly difficult to determine where the one ends and the other begins. The chicken/egg relationship between the two solidified into conventional wisdom during the aftermath of the Iranian election this summer, when journalists—mostly impeded from shoe-leather reporting and other, more traditional methods of newsgathering—were forced to play the role of social-media editors. In the dizzying tumult of reporting-by-proxy, mainstream media discovered what Web-native journalism has always taken for granted: that journalism tends to become richer, more compelling, and generally better when it is the result of collaboration.

We saw this again yesterday, after an Army major named Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing twelve people and injuring thirty-one. Only, this time, added to the real-time coverage of the shootings was a new mechanism for breaking-news updates: Twitter lists. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, news outlets from The New York Times to The Huffington Post to The Today Show created lists that aggregated the Twitter feeds of, among others, national breaking-news sources (CNN, the AP), official sources (the U.S. Army, the Red Cross, the office of Texas governor Rick Perry), local news organizations, and local individuals.

The lists—which offer a running stream of information, updates, and commentary from the aggregated feeds—represent a vast improvement over the previous means of following breaking news in real time. In place of free-for-all Twitter hashtags—which, valuable as they are in creating an unfiltered channel for communication, are often cluttered with ephemera, re-tweets, and other noise—they give us editorial order. And in place of dubious sources—users who may or may not be who they say they are, and who may or may not be worthy of our trust—the lists instead return to one of the foundational aspects of traditional newsgathering: reliable sources. Lists locate authority in a Twitter feed’s identity—in, as it were, its brand: while authority in hashtagged coverage derives, largely but not entirely, from the twin factors of volume and noise—who tweets the most, who tweets the loudest—authority in list-ed coverage derives from a tweeter’s prior record. Making lists trustworthy in a way that hashtagged coverage simply is not.

Lists, of course, whose architecture mimics Twitter’s ‘stream-of-news,’ real-time information flow, still feature Twitter’s trademark cognitive deluge: “I’m finding Twitter’s small factoids on Ft. Hood to be torturous,” the Minnesota-based blogger Bob Collins tweeted last night. “Think I’ll just pick up the Times tomorrow and take mine with context.” But they also, New Media Landscape-wise, increase reporters’ ability to provide that very context. As the Times reporter Michael Luo put it: “Seeing various Ft Hood locals who were tweeting abt shooting being contacted by reporters. Digital form of pack journalism.”

Lists also represent, more significantly, a new—or, more precisely, a newly facilitated—way for news organizations to collaborate: they allow news outlets essentially to co-opt others’ reporting. But in a good way—to the benefit of the news organizations in question and, of course, their audiences. So The New York Times gets to provide its users real-time information from Waco’s NewsChannel 25—and NewsChannel 25, in turn, gets to have its reporting amplified to the readers of the paper of record. Win and win. (And, taking the audience into account: win again.)

And while, sure, in the immediate sense, lists narrow the ‘democratization of information’—those who followed Twitter lists got a less freewheelingly diverse treatment of the shootings than did those who followed the #FortHood hashtag—still, in the longer-term sense, the lists actually expand the democratizing aspects of micromessaging. They empower Twitter as a media platform, helping users to find, per the increasingly apt metaphor, the signal in the noise. Yes, there was overlap and redundancy in yesterday’s coverage—the “Fort Hood” lists all generally contained the same local news outlets, the same official sources, etc.—but, then, that’s the case whenever different media outlets cover the same events. And while cable outlets were filling their air with equal parts information and speculation, Twitter lists were tempering conjecture with the wisdom-of-crowds brand of mediation that is built into their multi-channel approach.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

It’s what we saw with the Iran coverage—cross-platform, cross-outlet curation—only more streamlined. And more institutionalized. And, in some ways, more meaningful. As Mashable’s Adam Ostrow put it,

What’s really interesting here from a media perspective is that we’re seeing news organizations that compete vigorously for breaking news turning to real-time curation to help tell the story. And the result is certainly a win for media consumers – rather than searching far and wide for local news from Fort Hood, it’s all being aggregated for us by news organizations we trust. It certainly might be a glimpse of what’s to come from the Twitter Lists feature.

I agree. But I’d also take it a step farther. What we saw play out yesterday wasn’t just about the Twitter lists as a general feature; it was about Twitter lists as a general future. Which is to say: it was about what Twitter lists suggest for all media.

One of the core elements that has defined journalism, essentially since the first newspapers sprang up in the 17th century, has been competition—and with it, implicitly, the assumption that news is a commodity that news outlets are in a race to capture, create, package, sell. The Web has been utterly disruptive to that dynamic—not merely because it has changed the atomic infrastructure of news and its consumption, but also because it has, in more logistical terms, merged media platforms that used to be physically separate. “The Internet” is, in its way, a one-stop news shop; and through, in particular, the deceptively simple innovation that is the hyperlink, news outlets are increasingly defined by connection rather than separation. (Thus, the “Web.”) And that, in turn—fundamentally, if not completely—topples the competitive underpinnings of newsgathering as a profession. Do what you do best, and link to the rest.

Twitter lists suggest the institutionalization of this connected mentality, a kind of rudimentary codification of the media’s increasing openness to—and reliance upon—collaboration. They suggest the myriad benefits of cross-pollination. Even at this nascent stage, they represent, simultaneously, both the collapse and the expansion of the journalistic brand—and the recognition that, increasingly, brands are at their strongest when their owners prove willing to weaken them.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.