Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I tweet, therefore I am -- a journalist?

Alfred Hermida as a panelist at the University of Wisconsin-
Madison conference on "New Journalism, New Ethics?"
Posted on Flickr by the college
"Sigh," came the Twitter post.
'tweets are not jour-

I should have known by the "Sigh" that if I thought likewise, I'd be labeled a dinosaur, too.

"Cohn ignores how editorial process can take place in a distributed and collaborative way through social media," said the next post.

And later, "Discussion on 'is Twitter journalism' is pointless. Instead let's talk about how acts of journalism are talking place on Twitter."

And later still, "Twitter as a platform can be journalism. It would be like saying magazines aren't journalism by looking at celeb gossip titles."

The series of tweets were from Alfred Hermida, who teaches journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who participated last week at the annual conference of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The program, "New Journalism, New Ethics?", was webcast, as well as blogged and tweeted live. I followed several of the sessions on my laptop.

The comment from Scott Cohn, a senior correspondent at CNBC, the cable business channel, came in a session titled "Whatever Happened to Verification in Journalism?" that was designed to explore the compatibility of fact-checking and speed in the 24/7 news cycle.

Cohn cited an incident in which he nearly retweeted a piece of information before verifying it -- contrary to common practice by reporters. "Tweets are not journalism," conference live-bloggers quote him as saying. "Journalism is reporting of the facts based off of an editorial process (with a fist banging on the table)."

Sounded right to me: You don't just take someone's word on something; you check on the veracity of what's being said, why it's being said, and who's saying it.

But then came the Hermida tweet.

A BBC veteran of TV, radio and Web, Hermida is an assistant professor at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches courses on new media and integrated journalism. He just had a paper published in M/C Journal, a peer-reviewed academic journal, that focuses on Twitter and what he calls "ambient journalism."

"[A]mbient news," Hermida writes, "is based on the idea of the audience as the receiver. Ambient journalism, on the other hand, takes account of how audiences are able to become part of the news process." And Twitter, the microblogging service "that enables and extends society's ability to communicate," he says, "... has emerged as a significant platform for people to report, comment and share news about major events, with individuals performing some of the institutionalized functions of the professional journalist."

(Coincidentally, on the same day as the "New Journalism, New Ethics?" conference, the MIT Technology Review published a piece, "Why Twitter Is the Future of News," on a study that shows graphically how tweets reverberate throughout Twitterdom, spreading information far and wide.)

I get the examples of breaking news that Hermida cites in his paper: Twitter headlines on Obama's election, the Mumbai attacks in India, the US Airways landing in the Hudson River. And it was through Twitter that I first learned Saturday about the big aqueduct break that affected drinking water in the Boston area, and was able to check to see whether my college freshman daughter had access to bottled water.

Does that make Twitter journalism? I'm still not convinced.

Tweets are a resource, to be sure, not unlike the press release, telephone tipster or government whistleblower that provides a piece of information about something. But it doesn't become journalism until all the pieces are fitted together like a puzzle, given context and due diligence by a reporter, to create a news story.

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