In the past few years, there’s been a dramatic rise in the role of the citizen-journalist and, as a result, the institution of journalism itself. Much of this can be attributed to the ever-growing presence of social networks like Twitter, which just celebrated its seventh birthday on Thursday. Now, anyone can post messages, pictures, videos, etc. that millions have access to at any second. The so-called micro-blog allows anyone to instantly update what they’re seeing or hearing from practically anywhere that has an internet or cellular connection. Twitter has facilitated revolutions, brought down powerful politicians, and allowed religious leaders to directly reach out to their followers. In its short life, Twitter has changed the very way we communicate and report news.
Because of Twitter and other social media sites like it, the field of journalism has been changed. Twitter is faster, simpler, and more easily accessed than traditional news media and because of this, the routine that Tim Cook describes in Governing with the News in terms of collecting news and reporting it in a very structured format has been fundamentally changed. Cook posits that journalism is a political institution because of its broad influence, its actors’ determination of what is newsworthy versus what isn’t, and the structured routine in which news is presented (and the bias that results because of this). For the longest time, journalists, through their carefully created routine, would decide what was deemed news, who they’d look to for sources, and how the news would be presented. While political bias is often filtered out through objectivity, certain stories are favored because they have been deemed “newsworthy” by the press.
Twitter essentially flips this on its head.
With Twitter, citizen-journalism eliminates the advantage of professional journalists and thus impacts journalism as a political institution. Anyone with a Twitter account can tweet news instantly, in 140 character bursts that have a huge time advantage over articles that need to be professionally edited before they can go to press (let alone the sluggish pace that traditional newspapers have accepted). Citizen journalists are rarely professionals, but can report news nonetheless. They don’t have to check sources, they don’t have to get approval from editors, etc. If anyone with a Twitter account thinks something is newsworthy, they can just tweet it themselves.
No longer do professional journalists have the power to dictate what is or isn’t relevant. Citizens, interest groups, pundits, etc. all choose what they will report and who will see it depends on if the public deems it interesting enough.
For example, the Steubenville rape case that just occurred was largely the result of a few non-professional actors (in this case the hacktivist group Anonymous) drawing attention to it via social media and causing enough of a stir publicly that the traditional media would report on it. What would become a national story and generate a much needed conversation about patriarchy and rape culture was largely started by a few individuals that refused to be silenced. Twitter has given the power of the press to ordinary individuals that have the tech-savviness to generate interest in what they’re reporting on. In a world without Twitter or the online activism that it has generated, Steubenville may not be a household name or a symbol for rape culture throughout the United States.
Twitter has also taken the structured format of traditional journalism and tossed it aside. Twitter reporting is unorthodox, largely biased, sometimes completely inaccurate, and different accounts are geared towards certain demographics. Twitter accounts don’t have to worry about bias because, in many cases, people follow accounts because of said bias. There are literally millions of different sources at your finger tips with Twitter as opposed to the dozens (maybe hundreds) of traditional news sources that there were ten years ago. People follow accounts they want to follow specific perspectives–Republicans follow conservative accounts that filter news through that perspective whereas Democrats look for liberal perspectives. In many cases, bias is encouraged–the opposite of the objectivity of mainstream journalism.
The format is also changed because tweets are essentially one to two sentence thoughts as opposed to fully-fleshed, detailed articles. With Twitter, people value speed over quality so, when it comes to breaking news stories, people care less about what you say as opposed to when you say it. Cook would argue that the basis for journalism as a political institution is the opposite: because speed in the past wasn’t as large a factor, journalists could articulate clearer points of view and provide more details as opposed to simply trying to beat out the competition by a few seconds which led to powerful influence. This leads to even major news outlets being wrong on huge news stories in an effort to post their stories first (cough, CNN, cough). When journalists lose their ability to be accurate or provide clear perspectives in order to compete in the time-oriented Twitter, they begin to lose their influence.
Twitter has also cheapened the idea of journalism as a political institutions because it has also changed the way people accept news. In a world with millions of sources and bursts of information, people want any details that they haven’t already learned. Speculation runs rampant and people develop “information deprivation,” in which people literally feel disconnected without having a constant flowing source of new information to devour. Readers consumer Twitter updates because they’re near constant, they’re quick, and everyone offers a different perspective. Another key element that is often forgotten is that mediums like Twitter allow for high-profile accounts to reach out directly to their followers. No longer are leaders reliant upon journalists to convey their message. Twitter takes the middle man out of the process and hurts journalists’ influence in their ability to be the interpreter and conveyor of the news. Kevin Barnhurst argues that with NPR, the role of journalists increased in delivering news; with Twitter, the role of journalists has significantly shrunk.
Cook argues that journalism is a political institution because it has a broad political influence and it’s structured in such a way that it’s effective and politicians are reliant on it to convey their messages or news. Journalists are political actors because they hold the role of interpreting the news (Barnhurst), deem what is newsworthy and because they create objectivity through structure.
Twitter, in many ways, conflicts which each of these ideas. Traditional journalism’s influence has been lessened by the rise of the citizen-journalist (facilitated by Twittter) and its commitment to structure and routine has hurt its ability to keep up with Twitter’s unorthodox and simplified approach. Twitter also allows politicians to bypass journalists entirely. Journalists must now report on what citizens deem newsworthy, while trying to maintain a sense of objectivity that almost all citizen journalists cast aside. The main tenets that make journalism such a respected field are the same tenets that are allowing Twitter to gain ground on it in terms of influence.
Is journalism still a political institution? Cook’s original argument is still valid and the concepts that he brings up still ring true. However, it has been impacted by the arrival of Twitter and the rise of citizen-journalists; in many ways, traditional journalism has been cheapened by its competition with Twitter and its influence lessened. The influence traditional media has is what makes it a political institution–Twitter is simply cutting away at that power. Thus, journalism is still a political institution, but not as strong as it was ten years ago.