In Depth

Twitter Makes Serious News

By Daisy Whitney

In the modern news world, the idea that the respected news professionals at ABC’s “Nightline” are involved with a program with the unlikely name of “Twittercast” seems perfectly normal. But it would have sounded absurd even just a year ago.

The “Twitter” in Twittercast, of course, is the new Web-based text-broadcast service that played such a pivotal role in getting news out of Iran during the early days of protest following that country’s controversial presidential elections. More and more, it is becoming a key technology for TV and print news operations to keep in touch both with their audience and with fast-breaking news.

As technology has evolved from e-mail to cell phone video to 140-character “tweets,” news organizations have increasingly incorporated user-generated content into their day-to-day operations. Twitter in particular made major inroads as a news tool in January when a US Airways flight was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River shortly after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia airport.

It was the Iran election protests in mid- to late June, however, that proved the clincher to Twitter’s usefulness as a journalistic resource, suddenly taking on “a temporary air of indispensability” for news outlets scrambling for hard-to-get information, according to Al Tompkins, the Poynter Institute’s group leader for broadcasting and online. “It is a useful tool that seems to find legitimate journalism application,” he said.At times, Twitter, text messages and amateur video—most notably one capturing the shooting death of26-year-old bystander Neda Agha-Soltan—were the only sources of news out of Iran, and Twitter quickly became an important communications channel for people on the ground to get the word out about what was happening with the election and subsequent protests.

ABC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Jim Sciutto and Dubai-based reporter Lara Setrakian relied heavily on Twitter messages originating on the protest front to build their Iran coverage, according to ABC News Senior VP Jeffrey Schneider. In addition, Sciutto tweeted his own reports throughout the day.

ABC is also using the service for “Nightline”—which has teamed up with Twitter on several occasions to cover major events, including President Obama’s press conferences—and presents an online broadcast Mondays at noon that incorporates Twitter technology.

The half-hour “Twittercast,” as it is being called, is hosted by “Nightline” anchors and correspondents and allows viewers to discuss the news of the day in real time via Twitter. It’s available on ABC.com and at the digital channel ABCNews Now.

ABC said “Nightline” and its anchors and correspondents now have more than 1 million Twitter followers.

As part of its Michael Jackson memorial service coverage in early July, MTV ran live video and Twitter streams on its Web site and let people comment on what they were watching via a Facebook widget. CNN had a similar partnership with Facebook during the presidential inauguration early this year.

MSNBC.com also provided live video and Twitter streams of the Jackson memorial, running a widget with all tweets that contained Twitter tags for the event or the network, which helped drive traffic to the site. MSNBC.com reported that 7 million unique visitors watched 3 million live streams of the memorial service, logging more than 82 million page views by the end of the day.
Local stations are also tapping into the Twitter-sphere.

ABC-owned KGO-TV in San Francisco uses Twitter to monitor news events, promote stories and interact with viewers.

“We’ve had tremendous success using Twitter to reach new audiences and to better monitor local and national breaking news events,” said Jennifer Mitchell, director of Web operations for the station. “Twitter is most often the first place people find out about big stories these days.”
KGO is also reaching out to viewers through the service. In early July, KGO posted a tweet asking if viewers’ iPhones get hot when running certain apps. Viewer feedback was incorporated into the final story, Mitchell said.

During the popular San Francisco Bay to Breakers race in May the station covered the event online with anchors reading live tweets from runners and spectators, some of whom also called in to do live phone-ins with the anchors.

Newspapers are adopting the technology as well. According to Meg Thilmony, a member of the two-member Innovation Team at the News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill., the 157-year-old newspaper originally set out to use Twitter as a way to improve news gathering by facilitating communication between reporters, but it quickly became something much more.

“For 150 years, newspapers have pushed out information to people without any feedback, except letters to the editor,” Thilmony said, adding that Twitter now gives readers a voice. “It’s important to know what matters to the community,” she said

The 40,000 circulation News-Gazette sends out news alerts as well as tweets linking to its news stories and to other official sources of information, such as the city of Champaign’s blog. Thilmony has written an extensive primer for professionals on the use of Twitter at www.notrain-nogain.org, the No Train, No Gain Web site for newspaper journalists.

As far as vetting news tips it receives from the public, Thilmony said, “We have a solid relationship with many of our 1,450 [Twitter] followers,” adding that because of the relatively small size of the market, the staff actually knows many of the city’s residents. “We only re-tweet people we trust,” she said, because information—and misinformation—“can go viral very quickly.”

It is a concern echoed by the Poynter Institute’s Tompkins. “I do worry that faster distribution of tiny torrents of info do not ensure accuracy or context or authenticity,” he said.

“It’s important to recognize that Twitter is an evolution, not a revolution,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “In Iran, for instance, we have seen similar use of other new technology before,” he added, noting that the then-new technology of amateur video cameras and VCRs were used to record and disseminate scenes of political unrest as far back as the country’s 1979 revolution.

According to Rosenstiel, a danger Twitter faces is losing its authenticity as it grows larger, and messages intended to sell join messages intended to inform. “Corporatization will change its meaning,” he said. “It becomes a marketing device instead of citizen-to-citizen communication. It may already be at that point.”

Is Twitter in the newsroom to stay?

“The concept of pushing information into the stream is, but years from now will we remember we used to call it ‘Twitter’? I don’t know,” Rosenstiel concluded, adding, “Blogs used to be called ‘me-zines.’ ”