Twitter: the emergency broadcast system and the journalist

As you may imagine after yesterdays post, I’ve given a lot of thought to how journalists use twitter. Id been thinking about blogging a couple of key points to consider but Mary Hamilton beat me to it in a good (unless you’re Deborah Meadon) post on the Guardian website.

She illuminated a few things to consider when tweeting in times of riot:

  • Unless you can see it happening, don’t tweet about it.
  • Bear in mind that some people are making jokes.
  • Bear in mind that being scared of something happening isn’t the same thing as knowing that it’s going to happen.
  • If you see rumours, question them directly.
  • Get verification.
  • If you see something you know isn’t true, try to correct it.
  • If you’re tweeting about things you can see, be specific.
  • Follow people you trust to be accurate.
  • If you’ve been out looting and rioting, please tweet about it.

Developing the ‘be accurate about tweeting what you see’ point Mary makes an interesting statement:

Remember: if you can see it and you’ve got the means to publish information about it, that makes you a de facto journalist. So be responsible with your power. Be specific about where you are and what you can see.

As a journalist you should know that with great power comes great responsibility.

One way to read that list is ‘if you are going to be on twitter during the riots then be journalistic otherwise leave it to the “journalists”‘ – and by journalist we are saying those who behave journalistically. Defacto or professional.

But could we take that a stage further? Could we say that essentially in times of crisis, twitter is now such an important communication channel that all none-essential users should keep traffic to a minimum. Should Twitter be left to allow the essential users (fire, police and media!) to do their job more effectively? Twitter becomes part of the Emergency Broadcast System.

I know the answer to that is no. Trying to restrict the use of twitter at any time would be like shouting at a hurricane to stop – pointless. The intrinsic value of the network at times like the riots is built on the diversity of the users. It’s also were the value of the ‘journalist’ rests – filtering that content.

But it does highlight one of the challenges we have as journalists using twitter:  not everyone uses it the same way we do.

Twitter without the rubbish

Twitter is a massively valuable journalistic tool. For many it’s a vital part of the process of ‘doing journalism’. So its going to be frustrating when people come along and mess it up. When people get in the way of the process. Wouldnt it be so much easier to find that lead if people would stop tweeting about their lunch? In short, it would be great if people could behave in a way that made our job more straightforward.

But that chaos reflects the dynamic nature of the network – the thing that makes it valuable. It is what it is. So we need to see this and any challenges it brings as an issue with our process.  When things like the riots kick-off, we the media need a different approach to twitter.

That’s not just because (I believe) twitter behaves differently during things like the riot but because journalists do.

Much as I believe that sticking to a basic journalistic process has massive value in social networks for people (journos and none-journos alike), there is an argument to say that just as the media takes on a different role (and a need to be responsible) during events like the riots, so, people who take the role of journalist in particular those who claim the title through employment by the MSM, need change their approach. How?

Well, on top of the good points Mary makes, the best way I can think to develop that is with a couple of questions:

  • Should individual journos only tweet about the event through official twitter feeds for their org, linking to that from their ‘personal accounts’?

Journalists personal motivations for being involved in tweeting clearly came through during the riots and often feeds became a mixture of personal messages and professional information. Normally this mix is fine but when the situation is so serious and the information is so important (and their job as a journalist demands a response) shouldn’t that response be removed from the personal?

Would that better reflect the temporal nature of the event and the powers and responsibilities that bestows on the journalist?

  • Should tweeting of live, ‘crisis’ events always be backed up with a presence on the main publication website?

I thought the Guardians use of a live blog in the riots was an excellent. Actually, in this instance, I thought it was vital. Not only did it give a valuable archive on which to build coverage, it also presented a single place where punters could go and get filtered, authoritative coverage.

Instead of users having to piece together the chronology and facts sifted from the truth and lies in the flow of tweets. It also gave reporters and others something to tweet to direct people away from the steady stream of rumours.

Power and responsibility

I know that some of the changes to process will always be dynamic and responsive; Who knows what the next event will be?

But I know that some of my thinking here (especially in my first question) is being driven by questions about where authority comes from and what that allows you to do. Where does the right to take responsibility for something come from?*

On social networks much of that is down to the quality of the relationship, the quality of your interactions and the value they add to the community.

But at times of crisis it’s not unusual to see the weight of the organisation a journalist works for being bought to bear in terms of authority – one day I am Andy the next day I am the Daily News.  – and that is the journalist changing the terms of the relationship.

You can claim it’s for the greater good but the relationship is still changed.

That shift is a little more fundamental and at the heart of the challenge of working online.

 

* For me that’s something that is distinct from taking responsibility – I can do this because of what I am compared to I do because of what I am. It seems common for people to see it as the act rather than the motivation

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