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Tweeting without fear or favor

When terrorist bombs were detonated in Boston in April, eyewitness reports via Twitter, often retweeted by regional and national news organizations, were a mainstay of the early coverage. The same thing happened when authorities were closing in on one of the bombing suspects four days later. Boston shows us just how much Twitter has become an integral part of modern journalism.

A quick look around the Twittersphere finds that many of the area’s news organizations—along with the most familiar newspaper bylines, radio voices, and TV news reporters—have an active presence on the popular social network. The local Twitter account with both the most followers and posts belongs to the Democrat and Chronicle, trailed by the four local TV news operations. Tweets from these organizations most often include links to stories on their websites.

Cynthia Benjamin (@CynthiaBenjamn), the D&C’s social networking editor, says the main purposes of being active on Twitter are (1) to reach people who may not see a story in print or on the website; and, (2) to improve frequency of contact with the audience. Echoing her, Tom Proietti (@tpmedia), media scholar-in-residence at St. John Fisher College, believes that local organizations have become effective in using Twitter, not only as a way to post quick updates about breaking news but also to reframe a story and keep it alive to help drive traffic to a story on a broadcast or a website later.

But some media personalities actually outtweet their employers and may even have more followers. Among them, no one is as ubiquitous as WROC News8 reporter and anchor Rachel Barnhart (@rachbarnhart), who tweets as much as forty to fifty times on a typical day, though that can spike to 100 or more if she is live-tweeting a breaking news event such as a trial or news conference. She has amassed more than 53,000 tweets and gathered more than 13,000 followers since joining Twitter in 2008.

Proietti calls Barnhart “a trailblazer” in her use of Twitter for news coverage. “She’s a walking laboratory for how to use it,” he says, and a good example for others to follow. Barnhart says she keeps three things in mind when tweeting: to be interesting, to be authentic, and to avoid wasting people’s time. Much of what she tweets is not directly related to her own work but consists of retweeted links to news from around Rochester, the state, and the country.

“If it’s interesting and valuable to me, I tweet it,” she says. 

Seeing a positive reaction to such sharing helped her realize what Twitter could accomplish when she began using it in 2008. The news-sharing practice has grown to the point that she provides a single account for people to follow and get a wide variety of material presented for them.

But Barnhart sees audience engagement as the greatest value in using Twitter, and she enjoys mixing it up with her followers at times. For example, she posted dozens of tweets during mid-May that were critical of closing Main Street to film The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and inspired adverse reaction from some of her followers. She’s also able to mine her network for story tips and sources. “It’s a fantastic way to find people,” Barnhart says, citing a time when she tweeted that she needed to interview a film buff and had a response and interview set up within minutes.

According to Barnhart, a big factor in her recent move from 13WHAM to News8 was that WROC saw the value of her social media network. In addition to Twitter, she’s active on Facebook and has a blog called The Rochesterian. Proietti observes that Barnhart has found a good balance between building a strong personal brand and using Twitter to enhance the profile of her organization. 

Proietti says another group bringing audiences to the organization through effective use of Twitter is the sports staff of the Democrat and Chronicle, notably Sal Maiorana (@salmaiorana). Benjamin agrees and says Maiorana has the most followers of anyone at the D&C at around 7,600. Maiorana and some of his sports colleagues were among the first to go all-in for Twitter when Benjamin began offering training sessions for the staff about four years ago. 

Like Proietti and Barnhart, Benjamin thinks it’s a strength that Twitter allows individual journalists to express themselves and build a following. “I like the fact that it’s what they have to say and want to share,” she says.

Unlike some news organizations, the D&C has no formal policies governing individuals’ social media messaging. It does have some guidelines and best practices that are passed along to the staff, especially regarding verification—such as avoiding tweets of information from police scanners. “We are journalists first and maintain our ethics,” she notes.

Mostly, the value of Twitter and other social media comes from seeing how individuals in the audience are reacting to news coverage.
As Bejamin says, “Now we can hear what they think whether it’s good or bad. At least they’re talking about us.”

Twitter explained

Twitter started in March 2006 and, with about 500 million users worldwide, is generally considered the second-most-popular social media site behind Facebook. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, about sixty-seven percent of online adults in the United States use Facebook, while sixteen percent are active on Twitter. The study surveyed 1,800 American adults in 2012. 

Using Twitter, people can post short accounts to be read by a set of followers and, in turn, can follow others to see what they are posting about. Posts are limited to 140 characters—yes, characters, not words—making the average entry shorter than a sentence. However, posts frequently include links to longer articles or websites and can include photographs, video, and other media.

Unlike Facebook, where potential contacts must approve a “friend request,” anyone with a Twitter account can follow any other account and be followed in return. This gives it more a public character that makes it more useful for journalism. The Guardian, a British newspaper known for innovative use of social media, has called Twitter “the basic source, tool, and distribution point in news.” 

Former Rochesterian Craig Kanalley (@ckanal), now senior editor of big news and live events for the Huffington Post, has been in the vanguard of Twitter journalism since joining in August 2008. The 2008 graduate of St. John Fisher College caught the industry’s attention when, as a graduate student at DePaul University in Chicago, he started a news site in 2009 called Breaking Tweets that reported on developing major news stories as they happened using tweets about them.

He sees some of Twitter’s biggest impacts on journalism as speeding up the news cycle, putting personalities at the forefront of coverage, and expanding the role for audience members to become a part of the news coverage. “All of the news organizations, journalists, bloggers, and everyone else on Twitter make it such a go-to source,” Kanalley writes in an e-mail interview. “The real-time nature of Twitter has sped up the news cycle considerably,” he adds. “There’s a real pressure and a rush to be first.”

Twitter’s interactive nature also closes the gap between journalists and their audiences. “Nearly all journalists are on Twitter now, and it’s so easy to interact with one by using the reply button,” Kanalley notes. “Twitter’s public nature has made it easier than ever to relay criticisms, ideas, and feedback to authors and news organizations.”

It’s also turned the audience into citizen journalists. “Time and time again we’ve seen everyday citizens turn to Twitter to share eyewitness accounts and commentary on news events,” he says. “Twitter and journalism go hand-inhand. They complement each other. That relationship is still evolving, and it will be exciting to see where it goes.”

Jack Rosenberry (@jackrosenberry) is an associate professor of communication and journalism at St. John Fisher College. He has been using Twitter since 2009.


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