Journalists take to the Twitterverse

The following article by Sally Jackson appears in today’s Australian newspaper:

IT’S Tuesday and I’m at a forum on the topic “Twitter’s Impact on Media and Journalism”, busily taking down the speeches in shorthand. As I do, the business-suited woman sitting on my left is tweeting about me on her laptop.

“This is interesting,” she types. “I’m at #timj talk about Twitter and media/journalism. I’m tweeting and the journalist next to me has paper/pen :-)”

Paper and pen? Got me! I do use them. However, I also use Twitter, which is how I caught up with her comment once I was back in the office.

These days anyone even slightly tech-savvy is at least vaguely aware of Twitter, the free micro-blogging internet service where anyone can say whatever they like to anyone who cares to listen, but only in 140-character bursts known as tweets.

Created in early 2006 by US software architect Jack Dorsey, and spun off into its own company in April 2007, Twitter is now beginning to gain mass traction. Twitter Inc won’t divulge an official count of registered users, but research firm eMarketer estimates there were about six million US users last year, projected to rise to 12 million by the end of this year. The Twitter Facts blog estimates there were eight million registered users worldwide by February.

Relatively slow to warm to Twitter, Australians now seem to be catching up, with HitWise reporting a 518 per cent increase in domestic visits between August 2007 and January this year. Among the visitors, it appears, were an increasing number of journalists.

Julie Posetti, a journalist and journalism lecturer at the University of Canberra, and one of the first in the world to study the media activity on Twitter, reports an “explosion” of media professionals in the Twittersphere this year, describing local journalists as “literally in a Twittering frenzy”.

“I saw it happening from February, during the Victorian bushfires,” Posetti says. “Before that I had done extensive searches on Twitter, trying to find journalists. Now the list has grown phenomenally, (including) a lot of mainstream and prominent journalists.”

On his blog,, Courier-Mail reporter Dave Earley has compiled a list of about 500 local media industry types with accounts, which he says is far from exhaustive.

Anthony Dever, social media manager at BCM Partnership, has listed 378 Australian media organisations with Twitter accounts, on his blog Dever’s Twitter account @MediaToFollow also keeps track of Australian news sites, newspapers, radio stations and magazines as they join Twitter.

Initially viewed as an entertaining novelty, Twitter started attracting serious attention in May last year, when it was timed as carrying live witness accounts of the Sichuan earthquake three minutes before the US Geological Survey reported it. It was also credited with being among the first to carry reports of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November and the ditching of a New York jetliner in the Hudson River in January.

Twitter’s usefulness as an early warning system for breaking news, to borrow US journalist Mark Glaser’s phrase, has led some enthusiasts to predict it may eventually supplant traditional wire services.

Posetti says journalists also love Twitter for bringing in new voices and perspectives; for yielding contacts and sources; and most of all for providing instant, global connectivity, allowing them to engage more closely with one another and with their readers, viewers and listeners.

One of the most popular local media identities on Twitter is Mia Freedman, blogger (at, Sun Herald columnist and TV regular, who has amassed more than 6000 followers since making her first tweet about four months ago.

“At first I thought it was self-indulgent, but you can’t afford not to be there now,” Freedman says. “Twitter is kind of like the town square crossed with the growers’ market. You have your farm, but you have to exhibit your produce where everyone is to entice them to come where you are. It can also be a source for journalists, a mobile focus group and a great help desk.”

On the downside: “It’s a time-sucker. It’s addictive,” Freedman says. “You can ride Twitter all day. It’s the most extraordinary, unique experience, unlike any other. You get this incredibly layered, schizophrenic experience that is exactly like a lot of birds chirping in the background.”

With many of their staffers already enthusiastically tweeting, media outlets are starting to consider their corporate position on Twitter — and seem generally lukewarm.

Seven Media’s Pacific Magazines has banned staff from logging on to any social media websites at their desks.

“However, access to specific sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, is provided to staff who require use as part of their typical duties,” a spokesman says. “All staff also have non-restricted access to computers in the staff canteen.”

News Limited (publisher of The Australian), doesn’t restrict access to these sites, but generally takes a dim view, says group editorial director Campbell Reid .

“It’s our belief that journalists who work for us who have news to tell should do so through the vehicles they are employed to supply material for,” he says. “We’re very uncomfortable with staff tweeting in a professional sense under their own names, for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is legal protection and concern about what is published.”

However, News won’t prepare formal staff guidelines until it knows whether Twitter is just a fad — “like so many things that burn so brightly on the internet”, says Reid. “We’re watching to see how it goes.

“We don’t want to spend a lot of time developing policies … and in three months’ time everyone’s realised it’s another way of having fairly boring conversations.”

The ABC has more readily incorporated Twitter as a media platform, with tweets forming part of its coverage of the Black Saturday bushfires and the Queensland/NSW floods. Leading ABC journalists such as Lateline anchor Leigh Sales, PM presenter Mark Colvin and ABC local radio host Adam Spencer are among the most followed media tweeters.

“The ABC is currently in the process of developing guidance to apply broadly across the ABC and, where appropriate, specific guidance for program makers and marketing staff … around managing their ABC social networking activities, which would include Twitter,” a spokesman says.

Fairfax Media will also release a social media policy soon, says group editorial director Phil McLean.

“I have asked our legal department to formulate something (and) we have combed around to see what other companies are doing,” he says.

It was a Fairfax reporter, technology writer Asher Moses, who galvanised debate about the need for journalist guidelines when he wrote a tweet last month labelling the woman at the centre of the Cronulla Sharks group-sex controversy a “slutty groupy”.

The resulting outcry led Posetti to frame her “Top 20 Take Away Tips for Tweeting Journos” (see breakout). But while the controversy highlighted the risks for journalists in merging their professional and private spheres, Posetti argues it would be a mistake for them to be frightened off doing so altogether.

“You need to be guided by the knowledge that everything you say on Twitter is public and it makes you publicly accountable,” she says. “That said, for journalists to effectively use Twitter, they need to be human beings. You need to bring some of your personality and life experience to your journalism so your audience can connect with you.”

Twitter holds other traps for unwary journalists. As a news source, the site was said to have “come of age” this month for its role in broadcasting information about the protests over the recent Iranian election. Some have even dubbed it the “Twitter Revolution”.

But the Iranian example has also highlighted Twitter’s weaknesses, says Antony Loewenstein, author of The Blogging Revolution. He cites examples of Twitter carrying incorrect information from Iran and instances of suspected deliberate misinformation.

“The use of the web in Iran is important. But there has to be scepticism,” Loewenstein says.

“It isn’t that Twitter is suddenly replacing the journalist who gets on the ground and reports. There is still a great need for more reflective, contemplative and well-researched stories.”

The media is only beginning to grapple with the positives and negatives of Twitter, Posetti says.

“This is an exciting period,” she says. “But it requires reflection and collaboration between journalists, employers and academics about the best way this tool can be used.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common