Monday, May 11, 2009

New York Times Reporters & Twitter: An Ethnography

I have always been intrigued by the issue of journalists’ transparency, especially when it comes to social media. Being a journalism student, I feel like it’s unethical to ask journalists to hide political affiliations and opinions just to ensure neutrality. It makes me feel like by becoming a journalist, you have to agree to have the right of free expression taken away. I feel like it’s wrong to force journalists to keep part of themselves secret. That’s why I’m a big supporter of journalists being transparent. I would rather know what potential biases a reporter has so I can take them into account while reading his or her article. Because of this issue, I decided to study Twitter for my online community. More specifically I looked at how New York Times reporters use Twitter. I wanted to find out if they use it for social or professional purposes and if they were using the site to its fullest potential. I also looked at how transparency affects what reporters tweet.

Before I started researching, I was very against journalists using social media, with the exception of professional sites, such as LinkedIn. Even though I think journalists should be transparent, that’s not the norm for our society. I thought that reporters using social media would only lead to situations in which journalists would divulge too much information and be reprimanded professionally or lose credibility from the public. However, now I see that if used in the right way, social media can be a phenomenal resource for reporters and can serve as a means to help journalists produce higher quality pieces.

Twitter Potential & The New York Times
The social media Web site Twitter is a micro-blog that asks users to answer the question “what are you doing?” in under 140 characters. While the site allows users to post anything on their mind, it is much more than what someone ate for breakfast or where they went out last night. Since its creation in 2006, Twitter has done amazing things for journalism. According to Alana Taylor, author of PBS’s MediaShift blog, Twitter allows journalists to transform with the new digital age and develop an innovative system of reporting.

“In the past, journalists were confined to their words and research methods, all dictated by traditional routines. Now they can create new strategies, use different tools, brand themselves differently, and propose new ideas. Twitter has given them hope and direction to do this because it has given them a public forum in which to loudly speak their ideas. Twitter is hope for the future. It is promise of change. Twitter is journalism’s Obama.”

In 2008, Twitter became a source of breaking news for major events, such as the Hudson River plane crash and the massacre in Mumbai (Posetti, 2009). It’s a great tool for both professional and citizen journalists, and really for anyone in the media industry. Twitter is not only an outlet to inform others of important events and interesting articles, it is a resource to find sources and information and to connect with readers. Twitter is a space that allows users to connect with complete strangers more so than any other social media site. According to NYT Media Reporter Brian Stelter, he uses Twitter to read news, share stories, find sources and story ideas, ask readers questions and keep in touch with friends, while he uses sites like Facebook for interaction with “real-world friends” (Brian Stelter, Personal Communication, May 4, 2009).

From what I have observed, NYT journalists mostly use Twitter to promote their articles. The NYT itself has a Twitter account. Through this account, Twitter is almost an alternative to an RSS feed, with tweets of headlines and article links coming shortly after the article is posted to the NYT’s Web site. Reporters and editors use their individual Twitter accounts to share interesting news articles, or more often to promote their own pieces. NYT’s Investigative Reporter Don Van Natta Jr tweets: “A must-read: Raising Bill Gates in the WSJ. The importance of "the water incident."” (Stelter, 2009). NYT City Room Editor Patrick LaForge promotes the “Talk to the Newsroom” blogs the city room puts together. “We added four more @CityRoom answers last night to Talk to the Newsroom about blog news decisions, tone, etc.” (LaForge, 2009).

One of the biggest potentials I see for social media is the way reporters can take advantage of it to find sources. Through Twitter, journalists can publicize the specifications of the source they are looking for as opposed to making phone calls to friends, family or acquaintances to find a source that may not quite fit what they need. Sewell Chan, NYT city room bureau chief and reporter, used Twitter to find witnesses after an incident on April 30th. “Seeking any eyewitnesses to Lower Manhattan building collapse” (Chan, 2009).

Twitter will also allow journalists to cover niche topics better because they will be able to find relevant sources and information by using keywords and hashtags, which organize search results. Because of the vastness of the Internet and the segregation that occurs in online communities, reporters can research niche topics very easily. Along with niche topics, reporters can use their Twitters as a medium for their beats. Stelter frequently posts articles and information related to his beat: media. This can be useful for readers who are interested in a specific topic. Instead of seeking out articles, they can follow a beat reporter, again similar to an RSS feed.

Through Twitter, journalists can quickly crowdsource information and get an idea of readers’ opinions. The amount of people journalists can reach through the Internet and social media is going to do amazing things for their ability to cover a story deeply and accurately, raising the quality of their reporting. With the scare over the swine flu pandemic LaForge asks followers, “Riding the subway less? Stocking up on Purell? How has #swineflu changed your habits? Answer here: Please RT” (LaForge, 2009). Through this simple tweet, LaForge can get an idea of the behavioral effects of the pandemic without having to interview numerous citizens.

Apart from using social media for reporting purposes, Twitter provides an effective means to connect with the community. Before starting my research, I never thought of the potential Twitter had to connect readers with journalists, but it is a very valuable use of social media. The most obvious way journalists can connect to the community and still benefit their reporting is to use the community for story ideas. It’s basically the modern version of a tip line. Community members can contact journalists directly about issues or concerns instead of e-mailing an idea to the paper. Editors can also use Twitter to find bloggers or citizen journalists and bring their work into the paper. LaForge did this for the city room’s blog, “Hey NYC bloggers, anything cooking that needs a City Room link? We'll give you a shout out” (LaForge, 2009). This not only provides the paper with free news, it gives readers the sense that the paper cares about them and wants to help them get exposure.

Most importantly, as journalists connect to community members through social media, it will create a greater trust of reporters. “By being open and being transparent we have the opportunity to build trust with our readers,” said Mary Schumacher, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s art and architecture critic (Schumacher, 2008). By learning about journalists through their tweets, the community will feel like they know reporters more personally and they will trust them more. Twitter helps readers connect with news reporters in particular because they have the opportunity to see the personality that they can’t show in their articles. They can add witty comments like Saul Hansell, NYT Bits blog editor, “#moonalice plan to save NY Times? Free bagel with each paper” or “I sneezed on the train in to Grand Central this morning -- and my entire train car froze in horror” from NYT Columnist Nicholas Kristof (Kristof, 2009). While these tweets aren’t newsworthy, they allow followers to get a sense of the personality behind the name.

Something that initially surprised me when studying NYT reporters was that they actually use Twitter to have conversations with readers. While in the past readers may have been able to contact reporters on more distant terms, now the community is able to talk with reporters in a casual, social way, creating a deeper connection. LaForge brought up this question to followers, “What's the best #Twitter app for iPhone? Seeking more features than Twitterific, Twinkle. Any of them have an easy retweet button?” (LaForge, 2009). He then responded with, “Followers' consensus re best iPhone app: Twitterfon or Tweetie. The first is free, uses standard RT syntax, so I'll try it first. Thanks all” (LaForge, 2009). Stelter embraces communication with readers, “Hello to 8000th follower, @apiary15, & to those who found me via NYMag. My feed's a mix of TV & media news/links/personal life. Q's welcome.” When I was trying to contact reporters, he was the only one to respond. Not only do journalists have conversations with readers, but they also tweet with other reporters. While typically, they would point out something another reporter would find interesting, Jim Schachter, NYT digital initiatives editor said to another reporter, “@thewrap Sharon: your reporting on this is lousy. I'm disappointed” (Schachter, 2009). Twitter can be a means for journalists to hold other journalists accountable for their writing and to give them feedback and tips for stories.

By following reporters’ Twitters, you can get perspective on the industry and insight into the reporting process. Kristof tweeted of the difficulty of reporting on a major outbreak: “Covering a potential pandemic is a tightrope walk. You must encourage concern but not panic, informing but not terrifying” (Kristof, 2009). LaForge gives readers insight into the editing process, “How we edit NYT's City Room blog.” (LaForge, 2009), while Kristof shows the writing process, “Just finished Sunday's column, as our deadlines are Friday evenings. It's torture -- my topic, I mean, not the writing” (Kristof, 2009). Although readers may have previously questioned the way stories were covered, by learning the process they will understand why things are done the way they are.

While NYT reporters are doing some things right on Twitter, they could use some lessons. For instance, Chan commonly tweets trivialities or quotes that don’t provide any interesting or useful information. “Got his coat back. Thanks, Adam” (Chan, 2009). This tweet serves no purpose because followers probably don’t care that Chan was missing his coat. When writing tweets, it’s important to think about whom you’re followers are and what they are interested in. LaForge is another example of ineffective twittering. LaForge tweets every few minutes, all day long. Like some other reporters, he mostly posts links to stories. It gets very overwhelming to read, which usually lead me to skip over those tweets to ones that were unrelated to news stories. Even though you would expect some news on a reporter’s Twitter, as a follower, I would much rather read the reporter’s thoughts and opinions. It’s helpful to have interesting articles posted because I may have missed them or didn’t have time to read the news, but when I really want to read the news I go to a news Web site, not Twitter.

One of my main observations of NYT journalists is that opinion writers are much better tweeters than news reporters. Initially, I wanted to see if there was a difference between the two types of writers in regards to subject matter and ethics. While I didn’t find any ethical differences, I noticed that opinion writers’ style of writing translated very well onto social media, but news reporters seemed to struggle. Opinion writers have a more personal, blogging type style, whereas news reporters are straight to the point. NYT Columnist Charles M. Blow shows an example of a short, interesting tweet: “Pubescent pirates, pre-med Craig's list predators, sadistic Sunday school teachers, blathering beauty queens - and it's just Wednesday” (Blow, 2009). Now compare this to a tweet of Chan’s “is pretty alarmed by the new unemployment report” (Chan, 2009). The opinion writers have a much more flowing, descriptive way of writing that is easy to read yet informative, while reporters’ tweets are informative, but lack flair.

Ethical Issues & The New York Times Policy
While Twitter may be a valuable tool for reporters, there are important ethical issues to consider. Journalists need to take the ethical considerations they use while reporting and apply those to social media use. Although Twitter accounts are part of journalists’ social lives, it crosses over with their professional lives, especially when they identify themselves as working for the NYT. It’s important for journalists to be aware of what they are tweeting and how that affects their reputation as a journalist.

The NYT has a very detailed ethics policy that applies to not only its journalists and editors, but to every employee that works for the company, including publishers and graphic artists. While the policy does not specifically mention Twitter or other social media Web sites, the standards on blogs can be applied. Journalists aren’t allowed to express opinions on politics or government, but they can talk about their private activities, provided they don’t show a lack of journalist integrity or neutrality. “A staff member’s Web page that was outspoken on the abortion issue would violate our policy in exactly the same way as participation in a march or rally on the subject.” According to the policy, in most situations journalists should use professional judgment and common sense before posting material online, but if they have doubts they should speak with their editors. Conduct online must comply with the ethics policy, such as no defamation and no intolerance to opposing points of view. The policy also warns that using a pseudonym does not provide immunity from ethical guidelines. Journalists need to keep Web sites and blogs personal, avoiding any topic they may cover for the paper and they cannot imply that the Times Company endorses their blog or Web site (NYT Co, 2005).

How do these guidelines affect NYT reporters Twitter accounts? Well, according to the ethics policy, they shouldn’t identify themselves as affiliated with the NYT, but they do. Because of this, the ethics policy states that they cannot express views that oppose the NYT’s opinions. From what I have observed, the journalists haven’t posted anything that would be considered inappropriate. The closest a comment came was from Van Natta Jr, “Try not to laugh: In TIME's 100 issue, Ann Coulter on Sarah Palin: ‘arguably the most influential person in 2008.’ (via @GregMitch)” (Van Natta, 2009). While this may be construed to show a political bias towards democrats, I think it’s more about issues with Palin herself, than her political affiliation. You also have to take into account the fact that this was originally posted by Greg Mitchell. Although Van Natta could make a case that this doesn’t affect his neutrality, he probably shouldn’t have posted it. Even though most reporters didn’t have ethical issues, Hansell posted this: “Thinking about what I really might want to tweet.” This may just be him having nothing important to say, but it could also be him recognizing that not everything should be shared online.

Although transparency in terms of tweet subject matter is more obvious, journalists also need to consider the people they follow. Should reporters be prohibited from following certain people on Twitter? For neutrality reasons, maybe they should be. While some people reporters follow may be irrelevant, others could lead to a question of neutrality. I follow Quietdrive, which just shows the type of music I like. There’s nothing controversial about that. However, I also follow Barack Obama, which shows my partisanship. For a reporter, following people who have certain affiliations with politics or controversial issues could lead to neutrality issues. Does this mean that reporters should only be able to follow people that won’t reveal biases? If a reporter wants to follow democratic officials, does that mean he or she also needs to follow republican officials so that his or her political affiliation is not obvious? NYT Political Reporter Kit Seelye understandably follows political candidates. While she follows both democrats, such as Barack Obama and John Edwards, she also follows Republican Mit Romney. This may not make readers think she has a bias. However, all of her tweets are about the democratic primaries. While they are factual, this could provide evidence for a democratic bias. Even if the democratic candidates were closer in the polls, she should have covered both primaries for readers of either affiliation.

Apart from discipline at work, a major consequence of too much transparency on social media is a loss of trust from readers. While it’s my belief that journalists should be 100 percent transparent so that readers can see any possible bias reporters may have, that is not the norm of our society. According to our norms journalists need to show that they are impartial by not revealing to the public their political affiliations or stances on controversial issues. Because of these norms, too much transparency could reveal potential biases and lead to a loss of trust in those reporters.

While transparency is the prime concern, there are also issues of credibility and accuracy that come with using Twitter for reporting. Seeking out sources and information online can lead to false credibility. People can easily pretend to be somebody they are not, making up stories to feed news hungry reporters. This isn’t much of as issue however, because if journalists are doing their jobs right they will do careful reporting and double check sources to ensure they are credible. With the speed of the Internet, there is also the issue of accuracy. If reporters post breaking news as they get it, it may not be accurate in respect to the full story. However, I think most reporters would make a sound judgment if it’s a sensitive issue not to post information before it’s verified. Even if it isn’t a sensitive issue, I don’t think reporters would post anything unless they believed it was accurate and from a credible source. The beauty of the Internet is that once someone posts inaccurate information, it can quickly be corrected. From what I have seen following NYT reporters, Twitter isn’t the medium they use to break news, they use it to link to breaking news stories on the NYT Web site, so accuracy isn’t really an issue.

What happens if a journalist uses social media in an inappropriate way? According to the ethics policy, if an employee violates any ethical guidelines, he or she will be disciplined and potentially fired (NYT Co, 2005). However, according to Stelter, the NYT does not moderate employee use of Twitter, at least as far as he knows (Brian Stelter, Personal Communication, May 4, 2009). While the inappropriate use of social media could lead to a journalist being fired, the worst result is the loss of credibility and neutrality in the eyes of readers that can result from misuse of social media.

As Internet presence grows and social media becomes ever more popular, it is very important for journalists to utilize the potential of social media. Through Twitter, journalists can promote news, find sources and information and most importantly connect to readers, which will create a greater trust between reporters and readers. Seeing all these benefits, it’s no wonder why NYT editors encourage their reporters to use Twitter (Brian Stelter, Personal Communication, May 4, 2009). While many reporters are positively using Twitter to spread news and talk to readers, some still need lessons on how to effectively use the site. Young reporters have an advantage because they already know how to use social media and they are using it to help them in their reporting. Although older reporters are beginning to embrace social media, they may not be familiar with all the benefits of using it in the professional world and need to trained in the potential uses social media sites provide.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provides a great example for what all newsrooms should be doing. Schumacher provides social media training sessions for her reporters. In these sessions, reporters not only learn how to use social media, but how to use it to improve their reporting. Schumacher encourages reporters to use social media to connect with their audience, not just report news to them. They also discuss ethical issues that could arise through social media (Thornton, 2009).

While social media holds much potential for the media industry, many issues could arise through its use by journalists. Transparency can allow reporters to become more connected to their readers, but it can also lead them to expose biases they may have, causing readers to question their neutrality. Although journalists can avoid this by opening up to the public without revealing inappropriate information, other issues such as credibility and accuracy can be prevented through careful and thorough reporting. Social media has far more potential to benefit journalism than create ethical concerns and many journalists are beginning to use it to their advantage.


  1. My name is David Kaplan and I'm a reporter for a website called Really excellent work here... I only put in a brief mention in an article on the NYT's new social media editor, but the NYT should hire you!

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  2. Interesting to listen to or read opinions about what one should or shouldn't do on Twitter. As with any new communication tool, the "rules" will continue to evolve.

  3. Journalists on Twitter - Seeking Sources, Thinking Out Loud, Promoting Self, Getting Personal. Indeed, for now, Twitter appears to be winning the microblogging arms race. With the popularity to Twitter and other Microblogging tools, we should expect to see a flurry of news channels on twitter.

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  4. I love this honest post. Commented on it in a post of my own - "Does Transparency help the Media?" --

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