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Of time, tweets and other relative journalism matters

October 3, 2009

Yes, it’s come to this. I am about to reference something I read on Twitter. Er, a tweet. I am going, in fact, to quote a tweet, and I believe strongly that there are rules for that.* Anyway, Rebecca L. Weber, in South Africa, tweeted this: “If I were in a different time zone I would be having a very productive day so far.”

It’s so damn true. I usually keep my computer set to New York time when I’m abroad, even for 8-month stints. It helps me keep in mind when I can call a Stateside office and expect to reach someone, what time my story is “really” due, etc. The problem is that I feel incredibly productive in the early hours of my day–“Look how many emails I sent, and it’s only 7 am at home!” But in the Great Lakes, that means it’s at least 1 p.m. (daylight savings time makes all this tricky.) By the time it hits 10 a.m. “at home,” and I’m still on the computer, I look up to find the sun changing positions in the sky, and I realize absolutely no one I meant to interview in their offices is even there any more. I think, “It’s okay, I’ll go first thing tomorrow morning, it’ll work out fine.”

But at home, that’s 1 a.m., and any reasonable person would be in bed.

* The Twitter addendum

I’ve thought about this for awhile, watching the way other news organizations jump on and off the Twitter wagon. Here are my ideas on Rules for Journalists Quoting Tweets. Did I miss any? Am I being too harsh?

1. As a general rule, don’t quote tweets.
Why? If the tweets aren’t coming from Tehran, it’s just lazy. Tweets are creeping into what used to be “man-on-the-street” (MOS) space, that part of an article where you quote ordinary Americans and what they think. (You may notice that journalists, at least national journalists, tend to do that less and less. That’s for another time.) We used to get those quotes by going outside, walking up and down the sidewalk and getting rejected at best, but usually snarled at, by 12 or 13 people before one consents to talk to us. And if we’re doing this right–and “right” includes whether we have time before our deadline, which is often out of our control–we should be talking to at least a half-dozen people before we choose the one quote that will stand in for the American Everyman. As Patrick White, journalist extraordinaire at the Toronto Globe & Mail once told me of tromping the pavement in the Bronx for a murder story, “I stayed out until I started hearing the same things from three different people, which is when I know I’ve done enough reporting.”

2. Do not confuse tweets with not conversations.
This links to Rule #1, but it bears sussing out: Part of the MOS interview — or any interview at all — is the context of all the things not printed in the paper. For every quote I use, I usually have 30-60 minutes worth of material you’ll never read. That’s extreme (and it can drive an editor crazy, all that over-reporting), but I learn the same things from it we all learn in a 30-second MOS on interview: where a person is coming from, how they speak, what their body language is… That’s all important stuff when judging how to use what someone has told you. You don’t get any of that on Twitter.

3. Don’t quote a tweet you can’t corroborate.
This seems to me to be a clear lesson from the Tehran stuff. And I think the media learned it pretty quick, contrary to a lot of the criticism that has been bandied about.

4. If you’re not in, say, Tehran, try to get contact info and call the tweeter.
Why? See Rules 1-3.

5. If you feel you must quote a tweet, make sure you can say yes to this question: “Is this tweet Tehran-worthy?”
I don’t need to rehash the (sometimes ridiculously euphoric) conversation about what Twitter did for the flow of information during the protests in Tehran. But that’s an extreme case, in which you can’t do any of the above.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2009 12:33 pm

    I agree on the tweet issue. I’m using it to find sources, but then I call them or go wherever they are to conduct the interview. The best publications, the Monitor included, won’t accept email interviews, and tend to snub phone interviews too unless they’re specified as such.

    There’s a good reason — You’re missing a lot by not being able to read body language, environmental cues, etc. People say many things that are contradicted by what your eyes tell you. Sometimes, you realize they’re not telling you the truth at all.

    People can be anyone they want on the internet. The quiet – such as myself – can be extroverted. The timid can be bold, the bold can be subdued, etc. It’s nice to be able to be what you wish you were in real life, BUT it’s a huge problem for journalists.

    I’m surprised by how many tweet quotes I’m seeing.

    • October 3, 2009 12:37 pm

      All good points! I was actually thinking of you when posting, too, b/c I remember you calling for sources but in a way that suggested you would actually talk to them, not just tweet them.

  2. October 3, 2009 12:50 pm

    Yes. And like you, I tend to finish with way more stuff than I will ever use, but it’s good. I get what I need. On the most recent call for sources, I found three people who were Civil Rights experts, but I didn’t end up using any of our interviews.

    I spent a long time talking to each of them though, and I’ve put them in my resource list, because I may need them again in the future. They helped me understand the global context of my story, sparked a few new ideas, and provided hours of great conversation.

    I struck up a friendship with one of the sources, and now, I’m writing the preface to her book as well as planning to co-write another book with her in November. Of course, for ethical reasons, working with her knocks her off my future source/interview list, but it will be a good partnership, so it was worth it.

    I thought I was the only one concerned about the rise of tweet quotes. I’m still somewhat undecided on using Twitter in general to source. Poynter etc. seems to think it’s ok, but still, I think we all need to be careful to maintain the old ethical standards as we embark in this new world.

    BTW, just read your about page. If I’d read it first, and knew what all you’ve done and what all you’re doing, I would have been scared to talk to you. I’m slightly jealous, deeply inspired, and profoundly humbled.

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