As Boston Globe Celtics writer Adam Himmelsbach summed up about as perfectly as anyone can, “Twitter is at once so great and so horrible.”
Ignore Elon Musk for a moment. Twitter remains a powerful tool for journalism, especially when it comes to breaking news. Following the right experts or local voices can enhance your beat reporting, while sports reporters can create a devoted following of new consumers by sharing mini-scoops and observations about a team or player. Summarizing your news reports with Twitter threads can simultaneously enhance its reach and increase engagement.
Through it all, it can be difficult to remember we’re not writing for Twitter and the dopamine hit that comes when one of our stories starts racking up retweets. In reality, the audience for our reporting on Twitter is shockingly small.
How small? According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, just 13% of adults in the U.S. regularly get their news from Twitter, trailing both Facebook and YouTube. In fact, more than three-quarters of adults online don’t even use Twitter, making it the least popular among all the major social media networks, including LinkedIn.
Yet nearly 70% of U.S. journalists told Pew that Twitter is the social media site they use most or second most in their job. For younger journalists between the ages of 18 to 29, that number jumps to 83%. According to the survey, journalists use Twitter more often than Facebook, and they use it more than Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube combined. The other sites mentioned in the Pew survey — Reddit, WhatsApp, TikTok, Discord, Twitch and Snapchat — were remote afterthoughts when it comes to daily journalism.
So, if just a fraction of adults regularly use Twitter to consume news, who is actually using the platform? As you’d expect, in addition to journalists, politicians, organizations and PR companies often have the resources to commit to spending time on a platform that isn’t paying them directly. And unwittingly, journalists have somehow normalized and legitimized Twitter as a news source by embedding tweets indirectly into stories, presenting them as content and not sources that need to be verified and placed in the proper context.
In a 2021 study of more than 23,000 articles, two media experts — Logan Molyneux, an assistant professor in journalism at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication, and Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media — concluded that comments on Twitter are routinely taken at face value by journalists and placed into stories with no further context.
“This sends repeated messages to audiences that information on Twitter is legitimate and authoritative, granting Twitter power,” Molyneux and McGregor wrote in NiemanLab.
This Twitter shift was cited recently by New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet as one of the reasons the news organization issued new guidelines on how its journalists should use the social media platform. In a memo to staffers, Baquet — who has tweeted a grand total of two times since joining Twitter in 2011 — said reporters “can rely too much on Twitter as a reporting or feedback tool” and “can be overly focused on how Twitter will react” to their reporting.
“Twitter has tremendous value. We have readers there; we have people we want to hear,” Baquet said in an April interview with NiemanLab’s Joshua Benton. “I thought it became outsized in its influence. I thought that some journalists were, you know, looking to Twitter for validation of their coverage. And I think that gave Twitter more power than, frankly, it deserved.”
In recent months, the tendency to lean on Twitter for sourcing and the ever-quickening pace of breaking news has led to some embarrassing failures of journalism at the hands of the aptly-named Twitter-parody site, Ballsack Sports.
As Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman explained in a recent story, Ballsack Sports shares “egregiously fake NBA news” to its over 180,000 Twitter followers in the form of quotes attributed to longer interviews by legitimate organizations. In interviews, the account’s anonymous founder (a 20-something from Akron, Ohio, named Matt) has claimed he intended to show how easy it is to spread misinformation online, especially on social media.
In a media ecosystem that often relies on quotes aggregated from larger national news organizations, the fake quotes displayed in well-designed graphics have been highly successful at exposing the rush to publish.
Recently, ESPN fell for a fake quote by Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant about NBA legend Michael Jordan. On a slow news day, the quote made it into a segment on ESPN’s daytime programming and was debated by fill-in host David Jacoby and NBA insider Kendrick Perkins. And it’s not the first time an ESPN personality has taken fake content from Ballsack Sports at face value.
“Thousands of people falling daily for fake athlete quotes posted by an account called ‘Ballsack Sports’ does not inspire great confidence in society’s capacity to deal with political misinformation,” CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale noted — where else? — on Twitter.
Obviously, reporters are human, and we all make mistakes. And every news cycle finds some bad actor impersonating sports news breakers like ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski or the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport on Twitter. The point here isn’t to shame anyone but to point out the cost-benefit of leaning on Twitter to inform your news reporting.
So, what can we do as journalists? Well, if we’re going to use comments on Twitter in our stories, at the bare minimum, we should place them in context, identify the writer and mention why they are relevant to the story at hand. You might also want to think twice about embedding tweets with quotes that end up in your story unless the visual or the comment itself is central to your piece.
In breaking news situations, if you’re looking to verify or debunk a particular tweet in your community that’s gone viral, you could turn to a tool like Foller.me. The free Twitter analytics tool offers a host of data and information on a particular account’s content and trends and makes it easy to identify a bot or bad actor. Other tools, like Amnesty International’s YouTube Dataviewer or TinEye, can help verify the authenticity of videos and images.
But Baquet’s advice is probably the best — we can all stand to spend a little less time on Twitter. Especially since most of our readers aren’t there, anyway.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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