By Tim Bajkiewicz, Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth University
It’s fitting that I first saw the article on my Facebook feed, “How 4 people & their social network turned an unwitting witness to bin Laden’s death into a citizen journalist” by Poynter Online’s Steve Myers.
It’s about Sohaib Athar, the IT consultant in Pakistan who tweeted about seeing the choppers during the May 1 raid: “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).” Myers discusses Twitter-verse networks more than anything else, but this caught my eye:
“Each of them contributed to a chain of information that turned one man’s offhand comments about a helicopter in the middle of the night into an internationally known work of citizen journalism.”
Citizen journalism? When did a 140 (or in this case 62) character comment become citizen journalism, or any kind of journalism?
Twitter has gotten increasing headlines for playing a role in the protests in Iran in 2009, the Haiti disaster, the revolution in Egypt, and more recently the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And Paul Farhi’s 2009 article in American Journalism Review discussed journalistic Twitter strategies–like using it as a reporting tool–that are still making their way into newsrooms.
So, the first question: Is Twitter journalism?
Business Week asked that very question in a Feb. 2011 published debate. Michael De Monte from ScribbleLive said no, Twitter is not journalism because it doesn’t provide context and depth. Brian Solis from Engage said yes it’s journalism if we define journalism as reporting news.
I just finished teaching our undergraduate senior-level Journalism Seminar class where, as I tell the students, we do some “big thinking” about what journalism is and what it means to be a journalist. We use what I consider to be one of the gold standards, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The Elements of Journalism,” updated in 2007. Its nine elements and principles are:
- Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
- Its first loyalty is to the citizens.
- Its essence is discipline of verification.
- Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
- It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
- It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
- It must strive to make the news significant, interesting, and relevant.
- It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
- Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
How could even one of those realistically happen in 140 characters? I suppose you could string a bunch of Tweets together, like Matt Stewart did in 2009 in what may be the first novel released on Twitter, but that seems to defeat the purpose of short bursts of information.
What about Tweets being citizen journalism?
This opens the whole citizen journalism debate. In a February 2010 article in Online Journalism Review, Gerry Storch quotes Indiana University’s Dr. David Weaver saying they shouldn’t even be called citizen journalists, but rather “citizen communicators” because “without the training and education that most journalists have, most citizens cannot qualify as journalists.” There’s no doubt that people can be in more places than journalists for regular or breaking news reporting.
In another Poynter Online article, Steve Outing wrote “The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism,” originally posted in 2005 and updated in March, 2011. The piece is about fitting citizen efforts into legacy media. It goes from the first layer, “Opening up to public comment” to number 11, “Wiki journalism: Where the readers are editors.” Social media aren’t mentioned (really?), but Twitter could get some traction with #2, “The citizen add-on reporter” where citizens provide information.
Although social media weren’t mentioned in either article, defining people as citizen journalists isn’t about the medium they use, but the quality of message they deliver.
Weaver’s conditions aside, reporting is just the beginning of journalism, and that’s Twitter’s strength–pieces of information 140 characters at a time. While no one wants to create a hard and fast definition of journalism, it involves more of what Kovach and Rosenstiel outlined and, as Business Week’s De Monte mentioned, context. But Twitter isn’t journalism, citizen or otherwise.