The passionate romance between Twitter and journalism suddenly seems to be on the rocks — and that’s good news for people who care about real news, delivered straight.
The latest sign of a break-up came, naturally, in the form of a tweet from Chris Licht, who’ll soon take over as CEO of CNN. Licht writes that May 2 will be his first official day at the cable channel and his last day on Twitter — which, he says, can “skew what’s really important in the world.”
That was posted less than two weeks after out-going New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet instructed his staff to “tweet less, tweet more thoughtfully and devote more time to reporting.” The paper issued fresh guidelines to “reset” the newsroom’s interactions on Twitter.
These are crucial moves in the news world because social media — Twitter included — stand for many things solid journalism should not. The damage done by the outsized influence of tweets on news judgement is only now being assessed.
Things didn’t start out this badly, of course. At first, Twitter was seen as an efficient way to distribute links to stories, at a time in the mid- to late-2000s when news outlets were desperate to establish a beachhead in the rapidly expanding digital universe. While celebrating Twitter’s ninth anniversary in 2015, founder Jack Dorsey thanked journalists as one of the main reasons “why we grew so quickly.”
But two years later, Twitter doubled the allowable size of tweets to 280 characters — which meant there was now space for the platform to deliver more than just headlines linking to content. It could also provide commentary, opinion and — most importantly — personality.
Twitter, in other words, embraced its true purpose, the one it has in common with all social media: promotion. Specifically, promotion of that phenomenon marketers term “the brand called You.”
On top of that, a lot of these social media personalities soon only appeared to care about and comment on each other. The largest single group of Twitter’s “verified users” — 25 percent — are journalists; according to research, journalists are also the most active people on the platform. One result: more and more stories seemed based on issues that “blew up on Twitter” or “went viral in the Twittersphere” — substituting this new yardstick for the concerns of real people outside the online bubble.
It’s impossible to measure, but it only makes sense that this all plays into the diminished credibility of journalism for large sections of the public. It feeds the belief that reporters are merely one part of an elitist group-think that leaves out particular story angles and points of view.
Some prominent media leaders now seem to recognize this — and have begun tackling the problem. Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter might intensify journalism’s obligation to end the relationship. Still, the break-up battle will be tough. It may be very difficult to give up that “brand called You” world view; a little taste of personal fame can be addictive.
In the end, it could be too late to repair the damage and make everyone forget that awful significant other, but the news profession has to try — for itself, and for a society in dire need of institutions it can trust again.