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Are sensational topics the only way for journalism to face Twitter’s success?

by on 27th July 2009 • The Cast Blog

Last month, a post by Jeff Jarvis caught my eye. Entitled “The King of Twitter”, the article wonders about the role played by TV channels in the creation and distribution of information, more particularly in light of Mickael Jackson’s death and the latest events in Iran.

The first above-mentioned event increased so considerably the number of exchanges on Twitter that servers were saturated (25% of the total number of “twits” on the night of M.Jackson’s death and before Twitter’s crash), due to the spreading of the information published by a media website (TMZ.com).

The second event – contested elections in Iran on Twitter – illustrated the gap that sometimes exists between the citizens’ expectations and the information provided by news TV channels. While there were many exchanges on that topic on Twitter,

the (American) citizens highly criticized the very poor coverage of these events by traditional media, starting with CNN, which lead to the creation of a new Twitter “tag”, #cnnfail (and the associated dedicated website http://cnnfail.com).

According to Javis, the journalists who covered the Iranian crisis created or kept on using a new kind of journalism called “social journalism” or “collaborative journalism”. Since very few of them were in Iran, they had to use the information available on social or any other kind of networks. Then, they no longer had to tell what was going on but to put things into context and perspective, to (try) to check out and to explain a piece of information created collectively by Web users.

Actually, this journalism did not appear because of the situation in Iran but in 2005/2006 with the creation of “collaborative” media websites on which the Web user was first invited to leave comments. Lately, he has been more and more associated with the Web content creation (see the new recent example below from the NYT : “Send us your Jackson Memorial Photos”):

Twitter encourages the “all emotion” trend

I tried to represent below the scheme of information circulation before its arrival on Twitter:

The scheme shows that time is necessary for the information to spread:

  • time for the reporter-journalist to check out the information and to corroborate it,
  • time to transfer it to his/her office
  • time for the office to publish it (press agency)
  • time for the media to edit and check it out again
  • time for the media to publish it ( time obviously depends on the nature of the considered media, the least favored one being the traditional press).

In this “traditional” system, the chief editor decides the importance he want to give to the information comparing it with other information he has and wants to publish, depending on readers too. He/she creates “his/her” own information hierarchy.

With the development of the use of Twitter, the information circulation has changed:

“Stark” information (sometimes false, for that matter – an element that Benoît Raphaël refers to in his point 6 – Automated translation) can be published directly on Twitter by an eyewitness, as by a journalist, before it goes through the editing process described above.

As the functioning of Twitter favors the redistribution of content by those who feel concerned ( via the RT), an information published on it can easily “saturate” the system ( see the statistics related to Michael Jackson’s death above) and reach a huge number of people in a very short time.

Obviously, journalists “follow” Twitter and it helps them to see new published information very quickly (there is even a specific following Twitter tool for journalists: JournoTwit) and to publish them even more quickly: to a certain extent, it favors their reactivity in front of events.

The confrontation of 2 logics

On one hand, Twitter helps identifying – on a narrow sample (from 16 to 20 million people on a global scale) of an overconnected population – the more discussed topics in real time (also called “trending topics”).

Necessarily, sensational topics (such as show biz, accidents, death, sex and scandals) are more popular than topics involving analysis and reflexion. To be clicked on (and twitted again), a link must necessarily attract the audience.

On the other hand, there are some chief editors who want information to make sense and are willing to put it into context and perspective.

When these information professionals consider that a topic does not need to be given too much importance, Web users can now ring the bell (see the example of CNNfail mentioned before). Does it have an influence on these media contents so that it forces them to treat in priority sensational topics before those that are more common?

Eric Mettout, the chief editor of the Express online, explained recently in a post his responsibility towards Web users and readers as an information editor:

No, you are not “clients”, we have nothing to sell, we are just doing our job that is to say dealing with current topics. In general, if you consider our job is good enough, you read what we publish (in the widest sense). If you think we are doing a bad job (and this is your right, obviously), you don’t read.”

It seems that this discourse is becoming more and more difficult to keep in a media landscape in which newspapers are losing money. Then, the only solution would be to get some audience (to use advertising) and the only way to get the audience is to… deal with “clicked on” topics, topics that people are talking about (on Twitter and elsewhere)… In a word, journalists have no choice but to deal with sensational topics.

Paradox chief editors have to resolve:

  • How to deal quickly and efficiently with sensational topics to attract “consumers” to then prompt Web users to read serious topics, journalistic and intelligent topics?
  • Is this even possible to do?
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