By humanizing journalists, does Twitter’s glass house strengthen trust, or weaken it?
By Rick Paulas
Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce was in a Minneapolis restaurant when he “showed his ass” on Twitter.
Pearce, on assignment, had stopped in for his first-ever Somali meal, and was baffled by the enormous amount of food placed in front of him. He took a photo and posted it on Twitter, noting that he wouldn’t have room for the banana that had been brought in “as an appetizer.”
This is where his Twitter mentions went to hell.
Somehow, his tweet had found the slipstream into Somali Twitter, where it went viral. That came with no shortage of folks telling Pearce that the banana wasn’t an appetizer, man! It’s something to be cut up and mixed in with your damn rice! “It’s like I’d walked into a burger joint, tweeted a photo of a ketchup bottle and said the server had brought me a fancy drink,” Pearce later recounted. “Or so I gathered from Twitter.”
In the wide spectrum of journalistic screw-ups, Pearce’s culinary faux pas was tame, but it taught him a valuable lesson. “If you show yourself to be a giant idiot or incompetent, or come off as arrogant or incurious, that can be risky for a journalist,” he tells me. “We’ve seen a lot of instances where journalists don’t look super great.”
And that is putting it mildly.
Consider the journalist on Twitter.
The medium’s appeal in the sphere is obvious. It takes the portable news gathering tools that come with the smartphone, and allows them to be easily deployed for immediate news delivery and consumption. Even the feed’s design — similarly-formatted blocks of images and text so the various signals bleed together; the ease of signal-boosting via the retweet; the ability to quickly add your own commentary via the quote-tweet — allows information to spread and proliferate at such a rapid pace as to be the first, albeit flawed, global instantaneous news network.
But what happens when journalists use Twitter for things besides journalism? Is there any value in journalists posting about their vacations, gripes, struggles, pets, or that awkward banana that came with their lunch? Does posting anecdotes and everyday detritus develop trust among their readership? Or does it just muddy the waters, waste their time, and make them look silly every once in a while?
Answering this question requires reckoning with Twitter’s reach and impact. With 69 million users in the U.S. — it’s unclear how many are “extremely online,” or even all that active — that’s just over 20 percent of the country’s population. Not overwhelming, but nothing to sneeze at. More than 70 percent of Twitter users say they use it to get their news, a big reason surely being that journalists are addicted to the site; one-quarter of its verified users are journalists or publications. It’s the closest we’ve ever had to a publicly viewable media industry chat room.
In trying to gauge Twitter’s value to journalists and journalism, there is no shortage of possible subjects. Let’s use the case of Mike Issaac, the New York Times technology reporter based in San Francisco. Isaac’s reporting is well-sourced, thoughtful, and sober, while early reviews on his book, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, have been extremely positive. However, on Twitter his handle is “rat king”and his tweets range from live-tweeting tech company press conferences to random smatterings of dislocated thoughts to posting about his pup. Does this method of interspersing reporting with tossed-off chaos affect how readers see and receive Isaac’s work?
“I always compare Josh Constine [the editor-at-large for TechCrunch] with Mike Isaac,” says a digital communications strategist and regular reader of tech journalism, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Constine went from writing great, deep stories about problems of social media and Facebook, to writing deep, glowing defenses of Facebook. His Twitter feed just reminds me how much Kool Aid he’s drinking. Meanwhile, Isaac is doing breaking stories about awful companies, and his non-work tweets show he prioritizes being a good dog dad over partying with tech execs.”
This type of critical reading hints at the potential upside of having journalists bare all on Twitter: the airing — accidentally or otherwise — of a journalist’s biases.
Despite branding to the contrary by some organizations, no news is produced without bias. One can stick to the facts, but the narrative framing for any story is, in itself, biased. Either the reporter is choosing the angle for how to examine a story, or an editor has their own imperative (sometimes ideological, sometimes financial, often some combination of both) to send a reporter on assignment. While these decisions are often described as made “in the public interest,” it’s worth wondering what definition of “public” the person is using. Any summary of actual events necessitates edits, if only to compress time, and each choice is informed by bias.
Twitter, in a way, pushes aside the wizard’s curtain to allow readers a glimpse at the potential biases of reporters and editors. And that can only be a net positive, even if it merely exposes an emperor without any clothes.
“Years ago, I’d read the New York Times or The Washington Post or The New Yorker, and look at the people there with this reverence,” says Luke O’Neil, author of Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia. “Now you see those people showing their ass ten times a day on Twitter, and that makes you lose all respect for them as a person. It’s like, wait, these are the people delivering our news of record?”
Journalist “ass showings” undoubtably affect how readers interact with their work.
Sonya Mann, who works for a privacy nonprofit focused on cryptocurrency, is a “big believer” in following writers rather than publications. “If you look at the quality of an entire publication’s output, it usually averages out to being pretty bad, offset by a few excellent investigations or analyses,” Mann says. “Whereas the quality of articles written by an individual person will be more consistent, and if I know a bit about their personality and views, that helps me suss out the useful information.”
But Mann also highlights the risks of journalists casually airing their thoughts on Twitter. She gives the example of when she soured (“I used to be a fan!”) on Vox writer Matt Yglesias due a tweet that has since been deleted. “Reporters are supposed to unearth factual information, contextualize it, and share their findings with the public,” she says. “A reporter who believes that it’s okay to lie or misrepresent reality, in order to push bad ideas just because of their political valence, in any context, doesn’t deserve their job.” (Mann also mentions the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo, who published an article about going offline, but then didn’t “unplug” at all. “He straight-up lied to readers and was caught because of his tweets,” she says.)
Mann isn’t an average news consumer. She’s someone that Aileen Gallagher, an associate professor at Syracuse’s Newhouse School, would call “hyper-engaged audience members,” and they likely aren’t the norm. “I don’t think the audience gives a shit that much,” Gallagher says. Rather, Gallagher cautions that experiencing the lives of journalists — and their journalism itself — through the lens of Twitter is simply providing readers with a different sort of bias: You like someone or you don’t, and that informs how you read their tweets. “If you like Game of Thrones and I like it, what does that tell me about you? It’s a false sense of trust,” she says. “A journalist can’t win in that situation.”
Whether it’s helping inform a reader or not, it does make a difference. According to a 2015 survey, there is a direct correlation between perceived credibility and journalists engaging on Twitter. It makes sense, not only in terms of trust and credibility, but in wanting to engage with their work in the first place. (Would you be more apt to click the link of a story by a writer you know nothing about, or someone whose life you’re familiar with?) How a journalist navigates the tightrope between serious, thoughtful professionalism and tossing off some @dril-like observations matters.
“You’d think people that use Twitter more seriously would be taken more seriously, but I don’t think that’s the case,” says Sophie Haigney, a freelance culture reporter. “Only using Twitter for promoting your own articles and pontificating that seriously doesn’t necessarily lead to more trust.”
Not-so-serious uses of Twitter can take many forms: tweeting dumb jokes, offering takes on the Twitter controversy du jour, posting photos of flowers or dogs in costume, or maybe pics of something weird they saw on the subway that blurs the line between joining the conversation and hyper-local reporting. Then there is the gonzo, no-takes-barred, rapid-fire style of commentary known as “shitposting.” One of this latter form’s top writers is the aforementioned writer Luke O’Neil.
“For every job I lost, I caught the attention of another editor that likes the way I write,” says O’Neil. Anyway, he points out, it’s not like whatever bridges are being burned with a few raw tweets were structurally sound to begin with. “People worry about getting on the wrong side of an editorial whisper network—and that was probably true a while ago—but that editor is going to get fired in six months anyway, so what does it matter?”
Some writers can use the medium less openly as others. It’s long been known that marginalized communities experience the internet differently, and Twitter is part of that truth.
“When people share more personal things about their life you’re inviting more harassment, and it that seems women on Twitter are more subject to harassment,” says Paris Martineau, a staff writer for Wired. “A lot of parents will not share social media about their kids or loved ones because they don’t want those photos or that info to come back to them when they’re getting harassed. It’s often an empty threat, but gets scary when people have a wealth of personal information about you.”
It also causes writers working in a particularly violent spheres to be extra cautious.
Kim Kelly, a freelance writer and organizer, reports on anti-fascism and labor issues. As her profile has grown, the ways she uses Twitter have changed. “I have not been so open about my personal life, because it’s a security concern,” Kelly says. “I see people using Twitter as a diary, sharing feelings if they’re having a bad day, and that’s really beautiful. But if I tweet out my mom is sick, I know it’ll end up on the wrong forum, and I’ll get people telling me that me and my mom deserve to suffer and die. So, I personally don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable.”
And yet, a Twitter presence is becoming more of an imperative for workers in an industry hemorrhaging jobs at an unprecedented pace. Unless you’re a proven name in the business, you’re fighting for your next job, or to hold onto your current one. A growing number of journalists are freelancers, either now, or in a few months when whatever publication they’re working for closes or downsizes. And while it’s nice to think that skill and experience alone translate to future gigs, wielding the power of a blue-check verification and a high-follower count doesn’t hurt. For better and for worse.
Production DetailsV. 1.0.0
Last edited: August 10, 2019
Author: Rick Paulas
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik