Fri, 07/21/2017 - 04:54

Posted by Belinda Alzner on December 12, 2011

The trend toward using people who tweet as legitimate sources in stories, and using stand-alone tweets as quotes, counteracts a primary function of the profession and promotes reactive reporting, says Stephanie Brooks. In this article, she looks at why this trend is problematic and how she thinks journalists should be using the social media platform to enhance their reporting. 


As a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University and wannabe social media guru, I am not naïve to the ways in which today’s reporters are finding and writing their stories.

With over 880 Twitter followers, I’m an advocate for the effective use of social media in the newsroom. Today’s social world with unlimited connectedness and ability to reach people in real-time provides unprecedented opportunities for networking, business, and journalism.

But what I am learning in the classroom, in newsrooms and the online world about journalistic ethics and accountability lies in stark contrast to the way Twitter is currently being used by reporters with some major media organizations.

The trend toward using people who tweet  as legitimate sources in stories, and using stand-alone tweets as quotes, counteracts a primary function of the profession and promotes reactive reporting. There is a right way and a wrong way to use Twitter in journalism -- making the digital platform journalist’s best friend and journalism’s worst enemy.

My concern about this was piqued when I read a Toronto Star "article" about a jibberish tweet sent from PC leader Tim Hudak's account. The piece is based solely on comments posted on the social media site, including the use of two quotations the reporter took from Twitter. The story then lists six tweets from various users speculating the cause of the tweet. Aside from the problematic sourcing, my bigger problem with this article is: how is this news?

What really threw me over the edge on this topic was discovering one of my own tweets had been used by the Star in a piece on an Ottawa school's decision to ban yoga pants. While I understand what is posted on Twitter is in the public domain and can be seen and used by anyone, it still surprised me to find out I had been quoted in the paper when someone from the Star tweeted me saying, basically, “by the way, we used your tweet.”

That the use of tweets for sources passes for journalism astounds me. If the reporter had contacted me (easily done through Twitter, getting my phone number and calling me) she would have found out more about what I posted and why. My tweet, which read “Every school should have uniforms,” was grounded in a strong conviction I hold about clothing in secondary education and one I would be happy to explain and defend. The reporter, should she have contacted me, would have found out that as a student who has experience in almost every school system – public, homeschool, private – my time wearing a uniform was the best and the reasons why. Would this information not have provided for a better, more enlightening story?


As a journalist and journalism student, I find this incredibly problematic. If this is what passes as a published story in the real world, where are my well-honed interview skills, and ability to chase down a source going? If we as students in j-school cited something a person said on Twitter as a source in our stories, we would fail the assignment. So, why is this becoming the accepted norm within news media organizations?

It seems we're moving towards lazy journalism when a reporter can simply do a Twitter search of a subject or hashtag and use a tweet in lieu of a quote or paraphrase of a source. This gets rid of one of the core functions of a journalist – going out into the world and talking to people face-to-face or calling up individuals to speak with, ask questions and understand the entire story: context, feelings, surroundings and all.

Using Twitter strategically means garnering true and meaningful story ideas, finding sources, crowdsourcing, and then reaching out to people on your own.

In the recent shooting at Virginia Tech, journalists took to Twitter to find students and witnesses to get information and a firsthand account of the atrocity. For example, a CBS News journalist tweeted “Hey #vatech – looking to speak & get updates from students on campus.” This use of Twitter for finding sources is good, presuming the news organization follows up with them to do some more traditional reporting.

But copy-and-pasting tweets into copy is something else entirely.

Storify – the social platform that creates stories for users by consolidating tweets, pictures and posts – is great for individuals and businesses, but not so much for journalists. In its facilitation of quick-and-easy reporting, it makes sense that cash-strapped newsrooms are using the site more and more. While it may be the go-to tool for citizen journalists, those in the profession should know it can be an assistance, but not a dependency.

Storify helps prove that today’s journalist – professional or amateur -- doesn’t have to leave the office, let alone their laptop or smartphone, to write a story. But as these platforms proliferate, will there still be a place for quality reporting and investigative journalism in the future? I certainly hope so, as do my classmates who will soon  graduate with nearly $30,000 journalism degrees. 

While I would be the first one to support an increased role of digital communication and social media for journalists, there is a way for it to be properly and ethically used -- one which more reporters should follow.

Stephanie Brooks is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. You can follow her on Twitter at @stephbrooks_ and read her blog at


I agree with some of Stephanie's points here, Twitter is both a great tool and a great problem for journalists today.

Does it makes some journalists lazy? Sure, but it could be argued that this isn't the first time journalists have been called "lazy" due to new technology. Before Twitter it was Facebook, before that, email, and don't forget the telephone (hence the term "desk reporter").

However, I don't think we should be putting a blanket "No tweets allowed" policy in journalism, nor should we consider all journalism that simply quotes from Twitter lazy. If a quoted tweet is preceeded by a paragraph that clearly states something along on the lines of "Reaction on Twitter was...", then I'm all for it. In a matter of speaking, quoting tweets in that way is no different than doing streeters — people used in those often only get a sentence or two to speak their view on an issue too.

While I'm sure Stephanie had a lot of reasons for tweeting what she did in regards to the Ottawa school's ban on yoga pants, I'd argue she would have very little to add to the Star's article since she is not attending the high school in question, and thus is just an observer into the situation.

I also would disagree with Stephanie's point that Storify is not a tool for journalists. Storify, which allows users to curate and organize social media, is a great tool for journalists. It takes those random tweets, and allows journalists to build context around them.

When done right, I'd even argue that Storifys can be just as good — if not better — than traditional stories. Here are some examples. (Full disclosure, I did the latter two Storifys and previously worked at the Star.)

I think it's important, when pointing out Twitter's shortcomings, to also point out its great pluses. I also think its a desservice to call "Twitter reporting"lazy. Not all reporting from Twitter is lazy — just look at Andy Carvin's Arab Spring coverage. That could not have been done with him calling and talking to every single Twitter user he used to curate his information.

Traditional journalism still exists, but it's important to remember that social media sites, such as Twitter, can be a big complement to coverage, not just a detraction.

Good points Sarah.  It all depends on how journalists use these emerging communication tools.  The potential of Twitter is to bring voices into journalism that go beyond the regular circle of sources a journalist would normally use.  

For example, Storify can be a powerful device to aggregate and contextualise an event or issue. But it is not simply about dumping a bunch of tweets together, but researching the data and constructing a narrative with sufficient context and background to aid a reader understand the story.

Twitter is still a very new tool.  Some of the concerns that journalists raise about Twitter are reminiscent about worries about new forms of communication, like the telephone.  Just replace the word "Twitter" for telephone in the story. The headline becomes - The telephone: Journalists' best friend and journalism's worse enemy.

There are always tensions as journalists negotiate the affordances of new technologies. Technology is both socially shaping and shaped socially.  Twitter can be used for lazy journalism, but only if journalists use it for that.

Part of the solution is training and education in appropriate ways to integrate new communication technologies into journalism. There will be missteps along the way as journalists explore and learn how to best use social media tools and services. But my hope is that we focus the discussion on how to enrich journalism, rather than hark back to a mythical golden age.

I totally agree. Have been seeing this far too often. It is not verifiable acuracy.


I tend to agree with the responses here, Sarah, but thanks of the post and I'm really impressed by the range of questions you've asked about social media for journalists. 

Just to add to Alfred's post, above: don't forget that originally the church thought books were too dangerous to be distributed widely but eventually the evil printing press had its way and we don't really have to think hard about the pros and cons of books as tools for journalists. The trouble arrives when they are misread, misquoted and unattributed -- and there's even room in some of those terms for the argument for liberal usage when you start to think about satire, subtext etc. 

Best practices have to be ironed out but ultimately the day will come soon enough when journalists will know the conventions for using social media and readers, or consumers of news media, will get it too. One of the things I find most interesting about your post is that the writer took the time to tell you he used your tweet. That's a nicety that's only reserved for Twitter. If you were in a public place a news photographer across the road likely wouldn't ask you if he could take a picture of you -- for example, if you were grimacing as you walked down the road in a wicked snow storm. And it might just make the perfect weather photo for page 1. I think you'd find it hard to have a very long discussion about the ethics/justice around that sort of illustration. Maybe we should more! - but I say this only to illustrate that journalism is jammed full of conventions we don't think about very much anymore. 

I like the analogy of news photography conventions because it gets us thinking. (I admit to posting your argument on a facebook site for social media educators!). I wrote there that we understand that news photography can't possibly tell the whole picture, for example. It's a flash in time (like the tweet?) but it isn't judged by the same standards as feature article or a documentary video for that matter. The media don't think much about fairness when it comes to a photo of a politician, for example, lying face down on a basketball court after he's tripped. Remember Jean Chretien a few years back?. 

I use that example deliberately. It's tantamount to one of the Twitter stories you wrote about. That's a story about the private -- probably not too, too humiliating -- moment in the life of a public official. The Star had some fun with it. Certainly not a hard news story and possibly it wouldn't have been written about a Liberal politician but that's for a separate discussion. That's a decision that's not about social media, but about other editorial standards. 

The piece is also in the 'isn't-this-new-technology-funny?' genre, and you could find similar ones, I'll bet, about people being bum-phoned in the early days of the cell, or about misdirected faxes, and emails etc. 

Finally, I'll paste some starter recommendations for journalists  -- one of many of these sorts of lists that will turn up in a google search:

Thanks for the posting.



That is right, using Twitter for journalism is still a method that must be studied before applying into the action. Twitter at present, can't be considered as a new way to publish your news but rather an intermediary between the news and the targeted audience for it.

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.