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How the Media Has Lost the Plot With Twitter

badBirdOne of the key challenges of journalism is finding people who will comment on-the-record for a story. It is hard work as you have to identify a credible person, get past gatekeepers such as secretaries and public relations staff and then finally convince them to speak. You want them to say something “strong”, such as expressing indignation or condemning the subject of your piece. But after all your effort, they are more likely to say something bland. This is because most people have a well-developed sense of self-preservation and know that picking fights in the media is rarely worth it. The exception is political adversaries who are paid to attack one another but their comments don’t count for much because everyone knows “they would say that.” No wonder then, that journalists have embraced the blizzard of commentary that is Twitter with such enthusiasm. Twitter offers a steady stream of quotes from a seemingly diverse group of people who speak with little or no caution. Best of all, it requires no effort from the journalist to get their comments. So isn’t this a positive development? Well, it turns out there is plenty wrong with journalists quoting from Twitter. The main problem is that most Twitter commentators don’t identify themselves properly. They use a self-chosen handle which is usually a nickname or a pen-name. Even the minority who use their full names usually don’t indicate their organisational affiliations. Outside Twitter, there is no way that a journalist would quote an anonymous person without checking their background. Even then, it would only be done if they were a source for the story rather than someone offering nothing but inflated rhetoric. But with Twitter it seems that different rules apply. Over the past year or so, the use of unsourced Twitter commentary by journalists has exploded and I think it has seriously degraded the experience for the reader. By quoting from Twitter, journalists are allowing partisan commentators to abuse public figures from a position of anonymity. The targets are usually politicians, but it can affect anyone in the public eye. To select one example from thousands this year, there was recently a storm in a teacup over former cricketer Glenn McGrath going hunting in Africa. This was a legal activity, so the justification for reporting it as a scandal was nothing more than the supposed public outrage at his actions, sourced from Twitter. One of a series of Sydney Morning Herald article on this issue, “Brett Lee implicated in Glenn McGrath hunting scandal”, cites twitter commentator “Angela” as evidence of widespread public outrage. That is her opinion and she is entitled to it but should it be reported? How much weight should I as a reader give to it? If Angela is largely apolitical and mainstream but has felt the need to comment in this case because it’s so offensive to her, then maybe I should give it a lot of weight because it reflects a large community segment. If she is a prominent figure with a lot of power then it also matters because she might do something about it or influence others. But if she is a fringe political activist then really, who cares? Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t give me this important information. It turns out that “Angela” lives in Terrigal and has done more than 31,000 tweets in less than three years, largely about how much she hates Tony Abbott. In my book, this level of activity – more than 30 political tweets per day – qualifies her as an activist regardless of her other affiliations. Her entire twitter description reads “Don’t blame me!…I didn’t vote for Tony Abbott..  All opinions are my own…” so it seems fair to guess she is politically-affiliated but I wouldn’t know because it’s not revealed in the paper – but it should be. So much for that piece of public opinion. The second Twitter quote the SMH uses is from Jill Stark who is introduced as a “fan”. So who is this Jill Stark who appears to be a random member of the public? If you click on her Twitter feed it turns out she is a writer at the Sydney Morning Herald’s sister publication The Age. So this is journalists quoting journalists, which would have been completely unacceptable not long ago, especially if they aren’t identified as reporters but as “fans”. Imagine a reporter turning to the journalist next to her and asking her opinion on a public issue where she is no expert, and then reporting it as public outrage! Isn’t this tantamount to just making up a story? And finally, a third Twitter quote is introduced with: “Some fans were trying to see the funny side of the scandal.” So who is Mr Onthemoon? It turns out he is a cartoonist from rival newspaper The Guardian. So two of the three people quoted on Twitter as members of the public were fellow reporters and one was an anonymous political activist! This kind of Twitter abuse now happens on a daily basis with major news sites such as the Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Mail, and News.com all participating. The only paper I know that has largely maintained its standards is The Australian. It is easy to see why time-poor journalists are attracted to using Twitter this way but if it continues the credibility of the media will be seriously eroded.