When should journalists retweet? When should journalists retweet?

Can you retweet without endorsing?

Social media and Twitter in particular has become an integral part of the working journalist’s day. As news organisations around the globe struggle to keep pace with changing technology, social media guidelines are often out-dated or missing altogether and it’s difficult for media professionals to figure out exactly what information should be shared and when.

NPRs Andy Carvin at his desk from where he monitors the world's news via Twitter. Image courtesy of Mike Jansson, Current.org

NPRs Andy Carvin at his desk from where he monitors the world’s news via Twitter. Photo: Mike Jansson, http://about.me/mike.janssen

The NPR’s Andy Carvin’s pioneering new social media journalistic techniques have earned him huge renown and much praise but they have also landed him in hot water with some of his professional colleages. Carvin is the new media strategist for Washington-based media organisation NPR which primarily produces public radio but he is better known as a twitter behemoth. His prolific tweeting during the Arab Spring made him a key source of breaking news to many, yet all the time he was thousands of miles away from the action in Washington. Rather than tweeting news first hand Carvin became a one man hub for twitter users around the region to share their stories through. It was largely his focus on personal stories, on individual pain and terror, that made his obsessive tweeting compelling, and that form the basis of his just-published book, Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution.

Carvin doesn’t merely report or ‘tweet’ the news for his followers (now at more than 90,000)  to consume but rather wants them to become involved in sourcing shaping and verifying the news. Traditionally journalists have been the gatekeepers only publishing information once it has been fact checked and verifying and then broadcasting or printing that ‘news’ for the audience to consume. Carvin admits that everything he ‘tweets’ isn’t necessarily fact-checked and verified. If he sees something on Twitter he will often ‘retweet’ to his followers in order to verify the information. Carvin argues that supplying this information to the crowd is the quickest way of getting to the truth and simply involves the public in the news making process. He says his followers know his techniques and therefore he is not misleading anyone, but this is where he has received criticism from fellow journalists.

overreached his twitter calling

The sharpest critique to date came from The Guardian’s Michael Wolff who claimed Carvin ‘overreached his twitter calling’ during his coverage of the Newtown school shooting in Massachusetts last year. Wolff wrote: “Carvin applied his you-are-there, or I-am-there-in-spirit, tweeting approach to the school shooting in Connecticut, not just noting each raw increment of the unfolding story, but adjudicating on, and frequently scolding, the rest of the media’s confused accounts.” Wolff criticised Carvin’s early tweeting of misinformation about a second shooter arrested at a purple van, rumours of the shooter’s brother being found dead and a second body found at the shooter’s mothers house saying, “while the guise is to retweet in order to verify, the effect is to propagate.” Wolff also dislikes the way Carvin gets involved in the story himself, tweeting his personal stories where the traditional journalist would keep a distance. “He keeps tweeting and keeps feeling (“unflinching”, according to his publicist), vastly more than the heartless cynics and professional snobs of nonsocial and nonparticipatory media (‘Putting away phone. Gonna go sit in my kids’ rooms for a while – just to reflect on today. You should do the same with yours. Stay safe.’)

Wolff’s article prompted a response from Carvin published here where he refuted many of Wolff’s claims and defended his techniques saying: “Because my Twitter followers know me fairly well, they understand that it takes me multiple tweets over a period of time to flush out the full context. While it’s entirely possible that some people took my tweets out of context, as Wolff does, Wolff doesn’t provide any examples of it. But of all the points he makes in the article, I find this one the most interesting, and it’s worth discussing further.” Jill McAllaster Collins a follower of Carvin’s confirmed his beliefs at least about some of his audience saying: “I never ever think of it as learning the truth at first tweet, but rather gathering of information, sifting, discarding, re-tweeting your requests for sources.” “I never ever think of it as learning the truth at first tweet, but rather gathering of information, sifting, discarding, re-tweeting your requests for sources.”

Carvin mentions that far from tweeting everything he saw that day he ‘sat on’ 75% of the material because it was contradictory only sharing information he thought the crowd could help with. He also defends involving personal stories saying it helps him interact with his followers.  “I’d like to think that whatever voice I have is because I’ve developed an incredible source network thanks to my followers, who have helped me find first-person stories in real time, all over the globe.”

Methods split the journalism community

The two and fro caused much debate in the journalism community with Carvin’s techniques proving divisive. London-based freelance journalist Kate Beavan refuses to accept Carvin’s defence. “Your tweets gave the story legs, added to the noise and the confusion. How is that helpful? That kind of verification process should go on behind the scenes in order to avoid precisely what you fuelled: misinformation,” she wrote. Reuter’s Felix Salmon has no problem with the retweeting of rumours, “one of the things I like about Twitter is that it behaves in many ways a lot more like a newsroom than a newspaper. Rumours happen there, and then they get shot down — no harm no foul. People are human, they believe rumours, make mistakes, jump to conclusions. Twitter is just a healthy reminder of that fact.” Dean Starkman of the Colombia Journalism Review doesn’t agree: “Twitter’s not a like newsroom because those have four walls, while Twitter’s amplification power is potentially very large.  Your “newsroom” has 25,000, sorry, 30,000, people in it.  It’s a lot closer to publishing than being in a closed news meeting.”

Many would argue that Salmon or Carvin or any ‘journalist’ should be more responsible about what they tweet because their status gives their tweets more weight than those of the average user. The question goes to the heart of the idea of news as a process rather than a finished product and probably determines whether you see Carvin as playing an important role in the new ecosystem of news, or being irresponsible and indulging in gossip.

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