Under Threat: How Twitter has the journalist in defence mode

There has been an illusion amongst journalists for a long time about getting “both sides of the story,” which is beginning to recede in the digital age. No longer can journalist hide from the criticism from a finished article. Journalism is becoming a dialogue in which there will be constant discussion around a piece of journalism and it is time for the journalist to be ready to converse.

Greg Jericho of Grog’s Gamut delivered a lecture last Thursday at The University of Canberra to discuss how Twitter and other social media outlets are changing the way that journalism functions and in turn how journalists should adapt. “Suddenly they come on Twitter and they are confronted with responses to something that they have said,” says Jericho. “And too often political journalists…think that Twitter is filled with annoying people.” Journalists have long been privileged with an authority that grants their work a sense of finality, however on the internet no story is ever finished and there is no definitive or authoritative account. For the most part, this idea that there can be a response to a piece of journalism is new to journalists. While yes, there has always existed the comments section at the bottom of online articles, nothing compares to the opportunity for feedback that Twitter offers. Bloggers and tweeters are used to the conversational nature of these social media platforms, “Every statement on Twitter is made with the view of there being a response;” says Jericho. “You know you’re not just making it to nobody, you’re making it to your followers.” But journalists are mostly alien to this conversational style of critique. No longer is their work seen as an authoritative account, but as a beginning of a dialogue where the story will be challenged, discussed, interpreted in a de-centred discussion among the audience and, potentially, the journalist.

Twitter, as a platform for dialogue between journalists and audience, is an example of how modes of open journalism are changing the role of the journalist. Gone are the days of publishing a piece with finality. There is no longer the security of posting a story on the web that is unchangeable. This is causing the journalist to go into a defence mode. While they know they must be present on Twitter, partly to show their unbiased and neutral view, they are apprehensive of the open nature. In his lecture, Jericho mentioned Peter van Onselen as an example of a journalist feeling under attack on Twitter. After writing a post that received negative feedback from only 10 followers, van Onselen felt the need to defend himself, tweeting “The one eyed ALP supporters on Twitter are right silly me. The PM is doing a bang up job well done #oopsiadvocatedavotefortheALPin2010 #wakeup” in what Jericho describes as a sort of “High Broderism“; “you’ve got it wrong, I’m not biased I’m telling the truth because I once advocated for the ALP…you can’t accuse me of being bias because I’m in the middle.” Just an example of how journalists feel under threat due to response and in turn how they must defend their unbiased views.

Jericho notes that this defense from journalists is a product of the new lack of control and destruction of the old conditions. He says, “They are unable to cope with this, what I think is a widening gyre of social media, in while journalists words are taken and spun away from their hands.” No longer does the journalist have the final say in what they produce. So what does this all mean for the authority held by journalist? Basically, that it no longer exists. And the journalist better get used to it.

While the author of a piece will still be crucial, they must get used to the fact that their piece will  no longer be finished when published but instead be altered, adjusted, explained, discussed. “No longer will it be the columnist that provokes outrage,” says Jericho. “It will be someone who provokes discussion.” The journalist must become comfortable with engaging in discussion and realize that this is all now just part of the process.

Jericho quotes John Bergin, the director of social media and the digital news at Sky News, “This dialogue between the formerly passive readers and the active journalist is never going to go away. It’s going to be there whether we are still using Twitter or not,” Bergin says. “This is going to need a different set of skills from journalists.”

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