The Twitter-isation of the news

The way that two big news stories in the past week were covered on BBC News have made me realise: not only is Twitter no passing fad, but it even may be having an irrevocable effect on mainstream journalism.

The first story was the limited Cabinet reshuffle undertaken by Gordon Brown; and the second was four days later with the build up to the announcement of the UK plan to bail out banks to the tune of £50bn. In both cases, the BBC opted to lead their news coverage of the story with a live text “as it happened” format. This takes the form of a whole sequence of brief one-paragraph time-stamped entry, from multiple sources including text contributors, and with the most recent addition at the top. Sound familiar? It should – it’s the very essence of how Twitter works. It’s most definitely microblogging.

This is the first time I can recall seeing this approach used for serious, heavyweight stories. But it’s not new on the BBC site as a whole: it’s been used for sports coverage for some time now, and was the main way I followed the Euro 2008 football in the summer, long before I’d even heard of Twitter. I’m not a huge fan of football, but I found the live text feed from the BBC to be lively, funny and engrossing all by itself.

Nor did the BBC pioneer this format as a way of covering sporting events. When I first got online in the mid-90s it was to get more information about Formula 1, and the official FIA site had a ‘lap-by-lap’ summary for journalists to download immediately after every Grand Prix. And all they were doing was delivering material online they had been producing offline for years.

Ironically, just as this sort of thing becomes popular and mainstream, the FIA no longer provide this service for F1 – because they think a traditional website with live timing streams is the way of the future. But meanwhile, back at the BBC, they’ve picked up the baton and now provide their own, unofficial live text coverage of the Grand Prix.

The crossover of the live text microblogging approach seemed to come during the recent US Presidential Debates. Actually you can see why: these theatrical, staged gladiatorial occasions are the perfect blend of showbiz and sport in a news and political affairs wrapper. Just to prove how ideal this subject is, Twitter has since jumped on its own band wagon with a special US Election Twitter feed.

As to whether Twitter is the cause of this change of mainstream media, or just a parallel or coincidental development – I grant you, it’s impossible to prove either way. But I would assert that the timing of this ‘jump’ of microblogging is not a coincidence and wouldn’t have happened if journalists weren’t aware of and using Twitter. Twitter’s success – and the fact that it’s trendy in media circles right now – gives the BBC the license it needs to try microblogging on serious news pages without getting laughed out of town. Instead of being perceived as an old sports-only method of reporting, it can be positioned instead as the BBC cannily judging the zeitgeist and jumping on board at the perfect moment. The BBC are trailblazers at identifying new trends and tools, from showing the financial crisis in graphics to the use of video clips and user-generated content, wide provision of RSS and Twitter alert feeds, and how their blogs have become famous for breaking world exclusives thanks to Nick Robinson and Robert Peston. As far as web 2.0 goes it has no greater, more enthusiastic or – crucially – more effective champion than Auntie.

So if you accept that microblogging is becoming increasingly the way of covering news stories as well as sports, the question that immediately comes to mind is: is this a good thing? Or is it another sign of “dumbing down”?

I’ll nail my colours to the mast and say that I believe it is a very good thing. I wouldn’t want it to replace a follow-up considered analysis piece to bring it all together at the end of the day, but for a breaking story that’s moving fast then I think microblogging is ideal. With the traditional approach, a journalist would have to keep coming back to the article and updating it. Maybe the lead hasn’t changed, but some stories further down have been updated. Would a casual reader know where to look, what’s changed – or would they conclude it’s the story that they have already read? No such danger with a microblog: all you have to do it read the first paragraph to know if it is new or not.

I’d also argue that – far from being “dumbing down” – microblogging in the news environment actually allows greater, more detailed and in-depth coverage of the story in question. That is does it in an easy-to-access wrapper is just the bonus prize.

For example, take NASCAR (no, really stick with me here.) A typical NASCAR race is almost four hours long, usually a couple of hundred laps or more. The typical newspaper report on the race will cover: any notable incidents (i.e. wrecks); the story of the final couple of laps to say who won; and a bunch of quotes from drivers. If you’re lucky, the combined material will provide a coverage of perhaps ten per cent of the full race length; it will necessarily miss out any subtlety of the ebb and flow of the race, and will overlook any driver not directly affected by the wrecks or the final result. It’s a very incomplete experience.

Not so with the lap-by-lap summary that NASCAR still produce for their races: compare the lap-by-lap for the most recent race at Talladega with the traditional news piece on the race post-event. The level of detail and information is chalk and cheese. Not that I’m saying that one is better than the other, just that they offer different experiences with the feature piece summarising, analysing and filtering, while the real reporting of the event is handled in the lap-by-lap. You can have a hybrid piece as well, which is what I end up doing for my own race reports – you can compare motorsportind’s Talladega race report with the above to see what I’m getting at.

Ironically then, it seems that microblogging is a return to actual reporting of fast moving events, while the other pieces are analysis or comment that have become confused/synonymous with journalism only in the last couple of decades. Journalism has come home to the future, and it matches perfectly the emerging online set-up: live text is to Twitter as analysis/comment is to blogs. This blog post started with a couple of quick tweets about the BBC’s Bank plan coverage – and has now emerged, a few days later, as a full blog article.

Are there any breaking news stories that it would be inappropriate – tasteless, even – to tackle with a microblogging format? I honestly can’t think of any. A terrorist attack? A pandemic? A high-profile celebrity death such as that of Princess Diana in 1997? Far from being inappropriate, these are exactly the time when I would want the story rolled out at high speed and not wait around for it to be crafted into a careful narrative.

So perhaps one day – pretty soon – we’ll see online news sites recast as all microblogging coverage upfront, backed by in-depth feature pieces. Sounds good to me – that’s a site I’d certainly be checking out on a regular basis.

[UPDATE: Interesting to see Thompson Reuters inviting social media reps to a news event on the present economic crisis and given unprecedented access to the event and asked to utilise social media apps ranging from Twitter and Plurk to Seesmic and 12seconds in order to facilitate conversations around the day.]


  1. > Are there any breaking news stories that it would be
    > inappropriate – tasteless, even – to tackle with a
    > microblogging format? I honestly can’t think of any.

    What about a funeral?

  2. andrewlewin

    Ahh, the funeral – excellent point, Jonathan, thanks for raising it. I feel rather stoopid now not referring to that in the original post. I remember the fuss about the Rocky Mountain News coverage of that funeral and agree that I felt it intrusive and rather tasteless at the time. Now, having read the RMN article, I see it actually makes many of the same points I was thinking about when I wrote the blog piece.

    I guess I’d query whether any coverage – certainly detailed, extensive coverage – of a private funeral is good news judgement. If it’s not, then it doesn’t matter whether that coverage is achieved through Web 2.0 or traditional means.

    But transfer this to coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral that I mentioned, which was very public and blanket news coverage absolutely inevitable. Would Twitter/microblogging be out of place or tasteless there? No more than the packs of press photographers, the reporters, the TV cameras. I doubt it would even raise an eyebrow if there was a “live text/as it happened” feed, and I would certainly have no problems with it. And I think it would give the best, most accurate, most involving coverage short of being there or having the full TV feed.

    But it doesn’t remove the need for an editor to make a basic upfront editorial decision about what to cover, that’s for sure.

  3. Sebastian Crump

    I still think that certain events should not be written up in this fashion, such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters. At the early point of these events very little is known for certain. While it’s one thing to mention speculation in passing on rolling news, it’s another to commit that to written journalism, which seems to carry more authority.

    How would they correct previous inexactitudes? this style only lends itself to additive drip feeding of potentially contradictory statements rather than carefully considered, researched or validated information. So, for these events I much prefer the current tactic of putting on a headline and small story with a more to follow soon and then updating the whole story as and when appropriate.

  4. andrewlewin

    Evening Seb.

    > terrorist attacks or natural disasters

    But in the case of a terrorist attack, surely not knowing what’s going on can be worse and generate more panic and more false rumours? Sometimes the unwillingness of official sources to say anything for hours in case it’s wrong adds to the confusion and panic, makes them look untrustworthy. At least with a format like microblogging it appears and is understood to be far more transient, live, and expressly NOT a fixed and final statement for the ages – which is how it can appear when done as a traditional article or TV media report

    I’d argue that TV carries far more weight for most people these days than print. Rolling news is already happening – it’s just that print/text journalism can’t keep up and can do little to correct inexactitudes. At least microblogging gives it a seat at the rolling news table without compromising the follow-up analysis and summary articles, which are the historical records.

    Now, I’ve just realised that one recent example of social media journalism raises a very real problem – the report of Steve Job’s ‘death’ on CNN’s citizen journalism site that sent Apple stock plummeting. But that sort of thing already happens with traditional media (i.e. Bloomberg’s accidental release of a Jobs obit a few weeks earlier) so it doesn’t undermine the suggestion of microblogging as a valid journalistic technique and option – in the right circumstances and with the proper editorial judgement of course. A shiny new tool doesn’t mean we should lose our heads and use it any more or less professionally than other means at our disposal.

  1. 1 links for 2008-10-12 | James Mitchell

    […] The Twitter-isation of the news "Ironically then, it seems that microblogging is a return to actual reporting of fast moving events, while the other pieces are analysis or comment that have become confused/synonymous with journalism only in the last couple of decades. Journalism has come home to the future, and it matches perfectly the emerging online set-up: live text is to Twitter as analysis/comment is to blogs." (tags: journalism twitter blogging) […]

  2. 2 — journalism • learning • teaching = journalism education » The Twitter-isation of the news « andrewlewin: let me think about that …

    […] Read more here [link] Tags:bbc, blogging, breaking_news, hackademic, Journalism, News, reporting, Twitter […]

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