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FEED: The Speed of Tweet

Welcome to the days of Twitter journalism. Stories emerge, balloon, and pop in a matter of minutes, with reporters and politicians racing to keep pace. The only people not involved may be the public.

By Kyle Adams

There was an interesting piece on Politico this week by Dylan Byers analyzing the development and spread of the Romney Birther Comment story. If you missed it, it went like this:

At a rally in Michigan, Mitt Romney referenced the far right’s claim that Barack Obama is not a legitimate US citizen by saying, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.”

The subtext there is, “because I’m white,” but nevermind that. This is a media blog, not a politics blog. Reporters at the scene tweeted the remark within seconds. It quickly ballooned across Twitter. The phrase “birth certificate” rose to 275 mentions per minute within an hour, according to Politico.

Eighteen minutes after the comment was made, the Romney campaign issued a defensive statement. The Obama campaign responded three minutes later.

“The whole story– from gaffe to attack to defense– was shorter than a sitcom episode,” wrote Byers.

Here’s a brief history of the news cycle: It held steady at daily for a long time, with newspapers and even television reporting in the morning or evening. It was all about the day’s news, the next day’s news. When Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980 and introduced the 24-hour news cycle, the game changed. Suddenly, the cycle was shorter. A matter of hours. Stories could evolve throughout the day. Then came the internet. We didn’t jump right up again– not until social networks and mobile devices. But those last two things have compressed the news cycle to a matter of minutes and seconds.

The Birther Comment story provoked responses from the presidential campaigns within 21 minutes of the initial incident. The news wasn’t just reported faster, it made everyone involved react faster to keep up.

Byers’ piece ends with the right question: Who was following that eye-blink of a news story? Could anyone other than political reporters and politicians stay on top of that? It may just be a closed game, he argues, with journalists and politicians playing “without any spectators in the stadium”.

The speed of Media 2.0 may be more detriment than boon. The average person works during the day, and can’t commit to checking blogs, news sites, and Twitter minute by minute. The natural news cycle seems to be closer to the work cycle. Check the news in the morning or the evening, or both. Reporters racing each other to tweet the hottest news at 2:14 may be missing the point of reporting. Not only does a slower cycle give readers time to digest the news, it gives journalists time to write something more substantial than a 140-character tweet.

Those hot-rod tweets may also suffer from the passion of the moment, and the passion of the tweeter. The vocal community on Twitter, as on any social media site, tends to be obnoxiously biased. Reading twenty minutes of tweets gives me twenty minutes of repeated ideological soundbites, whereas reading twenty minutes of, say, The New York Times, will give me a fairly balanced, thorough view of a news item.

Social media has a role to play in journalism. Citizens tweeting live events, especially when reporters are not allowed, repressed, or otherwise unable to work, is a powerful tool– not only of journalism, but of democracy. Following sources on social media may give us further insight into their thoughts and actions. The ability of millions of voices to cry out in unison, in seconds, when outraged, is still under-appreciated. Analyzing social media trends, as exemplified in Byers’ piece, has become an insightful reporting tool. That politicians fear being exposed constantly may or may not be a good thing.

I’m not saying down with social media. Not at all. But we learned with cars a long time ago that the ability to go fast is not a mandate to do so. Journalists should stop letting the tools of their profession dictate the practice of their profession… and pay more attention to the spectators in the stadium.

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In Feed, Kyle Adams takes you into the world of journalism– a mercurial bazaar of blogs, tweets, and social networking that’s nevertheless rooted in timeless, basic principles of freedom, democracy, and accountability. He’ll analyse local news, offer his views on media practice, and address the bigger questions: What role does journalism play in our lives, and what does the future hold?

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