Twitter, journalists and journalism students’ dissertation questions

It must be dissertation time of year again; requests for help from journalism students are winging their way to my inbox like swallows. They’re pretty varied too, ranging from considered requests for assistance, with specific questions and an explanation of the focus of the student’s work, to broad-brush “what you think the future holds for newspapers?” queries.

Now, I don’t like to be unhelpful, especially as some of these bright young things may one day end up being my boss, but it’s very time-consuming writing considered, lengthy responses each time someone asks me stuff; so I thought I might get proactive and blog about it. Because most of the questions that come to be are currently related to how journalists and newsrooms can use Twitter, I’ve done a little round-up, with some links.
I’ve also been asked about future-proofing and skills; anyone looking at that should take a trip to Glyn Mottishead’s blog where there’s an excellent survey on the subject.

So, Twitter thoughts. It’s fairly easy to find writers who dismiss social media as a flash in the pan, a collection of ‘I’m eating a bacon sandwich’ microblogs. Some think sporadic ‘I need news stories’ tweeting is about as far as they need to go, and others see it as a waste of time. Ironically, this Express article was removed from its website a few hours after being mocked by the Twittersphere for its sheer hopelessness and ignorance.

On a more positive note, a US survey has also found that more journalists are using social media to follow news than ever before although I’m more interested in how (if?) they engage with other users on these networks. Practically every newspaper has a news Twitter now but these are generally updated automatically. On a practical level, Twitter lets journalists follow in events in real-time, using hashtags (everything from #Haiti and #uksnow to #xfactor) talk to people directly involved, gauge public opinion (look how fast politicians discovered #ilovethenhs) and follow links to more information, still images, livestream footage, video, blog posts and more… it’s an incredibly rich seam once you tap into it. Consider how Tweetminster has revolutionised the way a journalist can follow politics, debate, and politicians in a short space of time. And it can be an effective shortcut for tracking other social networks too, as more users select multi-site publishing options to cross-post their content, from livestreaming on mobile phones to mobile podcasts.

Journalists who want to get the best out of Twitter know they need to treat it as a patch, just as they would would if a news editor gave them a geographical area or niche specialism. They get to know the place, the people, the tools, the language and the etiquette, and spend time learning how Twitter works. Those that don’t tend to write articles about how Twitter is a hunting ground for paedophiles.  I know some media firms have Twitter codes of conduct for their journalists – personally, I follow a ‘tweet unto others’ approach and tend to think any professional person who needs a guide telling them how to behave in public dealings with others while representing their employer should take a hard look at their own character.
I’ve said it before, as have many others (see the links below for a selection) Twitter helps journalists who use it to:

  • Build an ever-growing network (you have to think about who to follow, what you can discover from them, who they follow and why)
  • Initiate conversations
  • Engage with audiences 
  • Learn to deal with instant response – and public criticism on occasion 
  • Reach experts 
  • Be transparent 
  • Show how you reached your conclusions 
  • Promote your work and yourself 
  • Share your data (and learn to let that data to be used by others and passed on, possibly without your initial contribution getting name-checked)
  • Take raw information, apply checks, re-tweet with added information and value 
  • Curate collective tweets into an aggregated developing story
  • Be a real person to your audience

News companies in general can benefit from using Twitter (although The Guardian does seem to be unable to write a story about it without attracting buckets of comment-scorn) but there are some rules to follow I’d say, with Follow being the operative word. If your newspaper Twitter account has 4000 followers and follows 2 people, even if whoever runs it responds to @ messages, the impression is that it’s not engaging, it’s broadcasting.
At the Post and Echo we’ve had Twitter accounts for news, Liverpool FC and Everton FC for two years, later additions include football blogs @LFCBanter and @EFCBanter and blogging reporters who use their own accounts to tweet post updates.
Newspapers that engage in Twitter streams and feeds can build brand loyalty, help market their products and extend their reach in communities if their audience also believes it is being listened to, and at times of breaking news, a fast-moving Twitterfall on a big screen in the newsroom can be mesmerising. Twitter lists are great for readers – the New York Times section gives me List Envy.

Anyway, I suppose what I’m saying is that Twitter isn’t essential for journalists –  I know some who don’t use it, don’t like it, and don’t see the point of it but regularly get the front page just the same – but dismissing it as just another social network is an error. It might be noisy and require some effort, but there’s no escaping the fact that it is currently one of the most powerful online real world sharing and conversational tools goings.
In these days of editorial cutbacks, when something as vital as spending time out of the office building contacts and talking to people inevitably has to take a back seat to the demands of filling tomorrow’s news pages within a few short hours to meet earlier deadlines, it can be enormously useful.
You can have access to thousands of people in your local/specialist area, get to know what they care about, where they shop, socialise, work and what gets them riled. And they can get to know you too. All that in 140 characters or less.

Possibly useful links: 

The use of Twitter by American newspapers 
When Twitter beats local news outlets
How journalists can master Twitter
Journalists and Twitter: All talk or are you listening?
There’s a plane in the Hudson River (Twitpic)

Reporters put Twitter, Facebook to ‘Big Brother’ test … and the rebuttal –Journalists’ Social Media Sideshow Will Prove Nothing

Tweeting from court: The Casey Brooks case
The online conversational onion
Graphic: What can you accomplish in one week of Web 2.0
The rise of Twitter as a serious platform for discourse

Updated with Irish Mail on Sunday response: A sad tale of a deleted blog

UPDATED 28/01/10… see additions in bold, and the statement from Irish Mail on Sunday reproduced in full at the bottom of the original post. See also journalism.co.uk’s latest article.
I read a blog post today that made me sa d and angry in equal measures. Blogger Melanie Dawn – an air traffic controller in Ireland – appears to have been comprehensively turned over by the Irish Mail on Sunday. If her story is true – I can’t find the relevant article online but there are plenty of Irish tweeters discussing the subject [UPDATED – thanks to Harriet who posted a link to the article in the comments sectioin below] – then it’s a horrible example of lazy, selfish, uncaring, ignorant, arrogant journalism.
[UPDATED: A statement from editor Sebastian Hamilton received today 28/01/10 statesIt is simply untrue to say that the paper did not contact Mrs Schregardus before publication. On Thursday, January 21, Luke Byrne attempted to contact Mrs Schregardus by Twitter (the only contact details he had) and asked her for an interview. On Friday, January 22, Mrs Schregardus replied. She informed Mr Byrne that she had sought permission from her trade union to speak to us. He awaited further contact from her, but he did not hear from Mrs Schregardus again. Either she chose not to speak to him or her union refused her permission to do so. >>> So, for me, how does the above statement change things? Looking back to my news editor days, and asking myself what would I have done, I’ve thought long and hard about it.And I can say, in all honesty, I would not have run the story as it stood at that time. If the reporter told me he hadn’t managed to get a comment from the person who originally wrote the blog post I just cannot see a circumstance where I would let it go. I’m sorry if that sounds like I’ve overdosed on Hindsight but there are some things that are worth taking a chance on, and some that aren’t. I’ve made some howlers in my time but I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of being cavalier.  However, even with the blogger not co-operating, it could possibly have used (although obviously not for that week’s publication) by the reporter used this post as a springboard to crowdsource the industry and find out if the wider picture. Crowdsourcing is a gamble – you very rarely end up having your pre-crowdsource story being confirmed but it can lead to deeper, better investigations. I’m thinking of David Higgerson’s investigation into Flyglobespan’s late flights. That ended up being a very different story indeed]
Her blog post begins:

“I deleted my blog this morning. I didn’t know what else to do. I was minding my own business when I got a call from a good friend of mine sympathising with me about the Mail on Sunday article.

“What Mail on Sunday Article?”

What follows is her account of how an archived blog post had formed the basis of an article for the Irish MoS; an article which was published without, she says, her prior knowledge or any apparent attempt to contact her by the journalist responsible. The full post (and there is a growing number of comments too) is here.

She observes “The Mail never told me they were writing a piece about my blog. The journalist who wrote it never sent me an email asking me questions about my blog” and she is seeking legal advice.

Now, I believe that if you’re not prepared to have your opinions held up to public scrutiny then don’t put them in the public domain. [UPDATE 28/01/10: The MoS statement continues – “…Mrs Schregardus had already put her description of her workplace into the public domain. In this respect, publishing an open blog is little different from giving a TV interview, making a radio broadcast or sending out a handbill: you are airing your opinions for all to hear.
>>>>>>> I agree A blog is absolutely in the public domain (unless you happen to have taken the ‘keep private’ opinion and if you’re writing it then you really do need to keep in mind there is potential for the whole wide world to read it. But circumstances can change, and if a journalist plans on reporting an historic post as a current opinion then they do need to know things have not moved on.]

However,as far as I’m concerned, to simply lift copy from another person’s blog post (especially on such a contentious subject) without checking with the writer in any way is shamefully bad journalism. If the MoS has been a party to such an act then it should be working on its public apology right now. You know what? I’m not holding my breath.
[UPDATED 28/01/10: The statement not an apology, it’s a rebuttal but it does continue the dialogue and address points Melanie Schregardus (blogger Melanie Dawn) raises in her post. As a blogger (as the disclaimer in my biog says, this is my own blog, not a work one) I’m pleased that the MoS has included included me in the mailout of its statement, which I’ve reproduced in full below. 

STATEMENT FROM THE IRISH MAIL ON SUNDAY 

The Irish Mail on Sunday has responded to a complaint from Mrs Melanie Schregardus, regarding our article of January 24. We await her reply, if any. In the meantime, however, here are some of the facts surrounding this case:
 
1. Some months ago Mrs Schregardus published a 500-word account of her experiences as a female air traffic controller on an internet blog that was open to millions of people around the world to read. Mrs Schregardus made no effort to restrict the viewing. In the week air traffic controllers staged a four-hour walk-out, it provided a fascinating insight into working conditions in a job that was obviously of major public interest.
2. It is simply untrue to say that the paper did not contact Mrs Schregardus before publication. On Thursday, January 21, Luke Byrne attempted to contact Mrs Schregardus by Twitter (the only contact details he had) and asked her for an interview. On Friday, January 22, Mrs Schregardus replied. She informed Mr Byrne that she had sought permission from her trade union to speak to us. He awaited further contact from her, but he did not hear from Mrs Schregardus again. Either she chose not to speak to him or her union refused her permission to do so.
By this stage Mrs Schregardus had already put her description of her workplace into the public domain. In this respect, publishing an open blog is little different from giving a TV interview, making a radio broadcast or sending out a handbill: you are airing your opinions for all to hear.
3. The Irish Mail on Sunday did not attribute to Mrs Schregardus the view that her colleagues were sexist. Luke Byrne quoted extensively from what she had said about her working environment. His account made clear that some of the sexist behaviour described by Mrs Schregardus (such as refusing to let women sit together) occurred during her early days as an air traffic controller and that conditions have improved since. While the article reported a number of sexist incidents, it does not say she is unhappy: for example, it quotes her as saying: ‘I’m well looked after by the guys, they’re quite protective of their “girlie”.’
Nevertheless, based on the contents of her blog, it is an empirical fact that her workplace is a sexist environment. Mrs Schregardus describes ‘banter’ between her male colleagues that, in her own view, is ‘quite inappropriate’ in front of a woman. She adds that that she is forced to pretend that such comments do not bother her.  Furthermore, Mrs Schregardus describe how to this day she is one of very few women employees in air traffic control – and, extraordinarily, that she still expected, ‘as the girl’, to take on secretarial tasks such as sending birthday cards and organising Christmas parties.
In the eyes of the law, and presumably of most reasonable people , male workers who make such comments and treat female colleagues in this way in a 21st century office would be considered to be behaving in a sexist and discriminatory fashion. Indeed, several of the comments on her original post sympathise with the attitudes of her colleagues or tell similar stories of women being discriminated against in the workplace (one, from a Danish Tweeter, says: ‘Come to Denmark, my friend – I do hope we offer some more respect than described here’.)
4. Last week’s air traffic controllers’ strike, which brought the country to a standtstill, was presented by union leaders as being about fairness for workers. In this context, it was a matter of public interest to tell our readers how some air traffic controllers actually behave towards female colleagues.
5. The photograph of Mrs Schregardus which we published to accompany this article came from Page 36 of this online magazine http://issuu.com/connors-bevalot/docs/publication1_-destress
Like Mrs Schregardus’s blog, it had been put into the public domain by Mrs Schregardus herself. 
Sebastian Hamilton
Editor
The Irish Mail on Sunday

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