Is Twitter Good or Bad for Political Journalism?

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking to the press on the tarmac at Miami International airport Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

With the Republican National Convention getting under way in Florida this week, the volume of political coverage is likely to explode. So is the volume of posts to Twitter and other social networks—something that was much more of a niche phenomenon during the last election campaign in 2008. While posting to Twitter was then commonplace on the various candidate buses and at political events, a political reporter for BuzzFeed says: “Now Twitter is the bus.” As a recent post at Politico noted, the hyper-connected, real-time nature of the political cycle now means that stories can emerge and get circulated almost everywhere with lightning speed, which has changed the nature of the game. Is this good or bad for journalism?

The Politico piece, about an incident on Friday involving presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, calls it the “21-minute news cycle.” As Dylan Byers describes it, Romney made a comment at a campaign stop in Michigan about how no one had ever asked him for his birth certificate, a crack that appeared to refer to the controversial “birther” debate over where President Barack Obama was born. Within a matter of seconds, a reporter attending the event had posted the remark to Twitter, where it was retweeted hundreds of times during the next few minutes, according to data Politico got from the Twitter-analytics service, Topsy.

Several minutes later, Politico and BuzzFeed had both posted items making the connection to the “birther” debate, and BuzzFeed had posted a video to YouTube of Romney making the statement. Within minutes, the Romney campaign had issued a comment saying the remark was taken out of context and that the candidate did not mean to dredge up the birth certificate issue again—a statement followed quickly by one from the Obama camp, which accused Romney of doing exactly that. Over the next few hours, the story made its way to TV news shows and elsewhere, but most of the heat from the incident had more or less died down by the end of the day.

Byers noted that the event perfectly illustrates how things have changed: “Four years ago, the fallout from a controversial remark would have taken hours, if not a full day, to unfold. In 2012, social media, which enables reporters to file in real-time and puts increased pressure on campaigns to speed up their response time, has brought the pace of the news cycle down to a matter of minutes and seconds. The ‘one-day story’—itself an archaic term in the 21st century—has become the one-hour story.”

This phenomenon is something we discussed at the paidContent 2012 conference in New York earlier this year, during a panel I moderated, with Vivian Schiller of NBC News and Josh Marshall of the political blog network Talking Points Memo. As Marshall described it, social media—including blogs such as his, which started the process later accelerated by Twitter and Facebook—have not only sped up the news cycle but have added new “vectors” that political analysts of all kinds have to take account of. In other words, instead of just paying attention to the New York Times and one or two political talk shows, everyone has to pay attention to Twitter, too, and to new sources of political content such as BuzzFeed and Huffington Post.

You could argue that the tendency for inconsequential or even irrelevant incidents to get blown out of proportion has increased, thanks to Twitter and the appearance of “viral content” sites such as BuzzFeed (which has been making a big push into the political sphere since it hired former Politico writer Ben Smith). This is probably true. But such incidents also got blown out of proportion by television talk shows and news programs and newspaper columnists before blogs and Twitter and Facebook came along. In many ways, all those tools have done is speed up and enhance a process that has been underway for decades.

During our conversation in June about social media and political coverage, Schiller also argued that the speed with which Twitter and other networks operate can be beneficial because it can help defuse or tamp down an incorrect or ridiculous report that might otherwise have taken hours or even days to disprove through traditional media channels. As Byers noted in his story, the Romney comment might have turned into a multiple-day issue, as newspapers picked it up and it worked its way through the usual sources of political commentary. Instead it was mostly out of gas within a few hours. As reporter Sasha Issenberg put it: “These little stories catch fire on Twitter more quickly than they did even with bloggers in 2008, but it also means that they burn out faster.”

There’s another element of Twitter and social media that could be beneficial during an election campaign, and that is the way such tools allow for sources directly connected to events to comment and affect the news flow—something that could help alleviate the “pack journalism” effect Jeff Jarvis and others have complained about, in which thousands of reporters congregate at a single event and repeat the same kinds of information over and over. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written about how social media can be an effective tool to combat this phenomenon during events such as the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere because it allows non-traditional sources to become part of the narrative.

This phenomenon of having “the sources go direct,” as blogging pioneer Dave Winer has described it, is probably one of the most disruptive effects Twitter has introduced into political journalism. Its impact, both positive and negative, is only going to become more obvious as the nation gets closer to the election. Whether it is primarily good or bad depends a lot on your perspective. Is it bad because greater sound and fury signifies nothing? Or is it good because irrelevant stories burn themselves out more quickly, just as the sources of information become broader?

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