It's time for journalists to promote a better 'Twitter style'

Once again, Twitter demonstrated its value as a breaking news tool during last week’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan. No other online tool I’ve encountered allows a reader to monitor, in real time, news coming from established news agencies as well as from individual eyewitnesses and other viewers around the world. But as effective as Twitter can be in bringing live news to readers around the world, the Japan disasters again illustrated where Twitter continues to fall short of its immense potential.

For those of us who follow hundreds (or even thousands) of feeds, fresh information can be lost between endless retweets of old information. Massive retweeting also allows false information to spread globally, gaining credibility with reach RT. While those of us who’ve taken the time to sharpen the list of sources we follow are rewarded with accurate, timely updates, too many Twitter users fail to enjoy the tool’s potential because they simply don’t know which feeds to follow when news breaks.

Social media eventually develop conventions of conversation that allow people to communicate with as little misunderstanding as possible. From in-person conversations to telephone calls to online message boards, people have developd mostly unwritten common rules that dictate the form of their conversations.

Many of those conventions have developed already within the Twitter community. But we can do better. That’s why I’d like to see news organizations and professional journalists use our leadership potential within this community to establish some additional conventions – ones that would help more people get better information when news breaks.

Yes, it’s time for “Twitter style.”

The first addition I’d like to see in Twitter style comes from Jeff Jarvis, who suggested a modified tag for eyewitness accounts in breaking news situations. Jarvis suggested that original eyewitnesses use a !tag instead of the traditional #tag when tagging their posts.

Jarvis acknowledges Twitter’s ability to pass along a geo-tag for posts that could help accomplish much the same thing, but notes that few people use it and many are reluctant to. While geo-tagging tweets might appeal to a tsunami survivor appealing for aid, imagine if you were a protestor fighting government forces in Libya. Would you really what to reveal your exact location in a tweet?

Eyewitness identification, if widely adopted, could help distinguish tweets from people on the scene from the chatter about the situation that too often obscures fresh reports. To help advance the cause, I’d like to see news organizations not only adopt the !tag, but also adopt a Twitter style that required geotagging all tweets, unless the reporter felt that geotagging a specific tweet would endanger him- or herself or innocent sources in the area. The more we use a feature, the more likely our example will encourage others to do the same.

[That said, it disturbs me that Twitter’s pushing away third-party developers, since third-party apps have done so much work to extend Twitter’s location service capabilities. Reporters in breaking news situations need tools that allow them to shift through data quickly using location tags in combination with other data. The more people using Twitter APIs, the more likely news organizations will be to either have access to such apps, or to easily find a developer to help create a custom one. So let’s keep in mind that these conventions should extend to other micro-blogging services if we should come to the day when Twitter goes the way of Friendster and AltaVista, and ceases to be the dominant player in this space.]

Journalism’s Twitter style also should encourage not just the use of the RT for spreading original information, but also the MT (Modified Tweet) when a reporter retweets information in a post, but modifies it in some way, usually to shorten it to make room for a comment or addition.

Other abbreviations that should find a home in a Twitter style include HT (Hat Tip, or Heard Through) for acknowledging the source through which a reporter heard the information she or he is tweeting, and RR for a repeated tweet. Let’s not forget that while modern news operations work 24/7, individual readers don’t. Repeating tweets linking important posts can help expose them to fresh viewers who are just “tuning in.”

Finally, the biggest step that news organizations can take to help increase the value of Twitter to a broader audience is to be more aggressive in recommending follows. I’ve met too many people who’ve tried Twitter, then drifted from it, mostly because they just didn’t find enough interesting people to follow. In a breaking news situation, it’s our jobs as journalists to find the best sources in the community and listen to what they have to say.

Just retweeting and reporting off their tweets isn’t enough. We should routinely share the identities of our best breaking news sources with our readers, too, so that they can see the value of the best of Twitter, instead of getting lost in its abundant banality. Make it part of your Twitter style that in a breaking news situation, you or your organization will once an hour post a #follow list of top eyewitness sources.

Make space to explain why these folks are worth a follow, too. I’ve stopped paying attention to umpteen #FF (Follow Friday) posts that lists feed after feed, without even explaining why I should care about any of them. Let’s do better.

These are just a few of the steps journalists can take to use Twitter in ways that set a better example for the entire Twitter community. I hope that you’ll consider them the next time news breaks, and that you’ll continue a conversation on how we all can use microblogging tools such as Twitter to advance stories, report accurate information swiftly and reward the community of readers with which we are engaged.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


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  2. says:

    With all the data (forget about it being info…that’s when someone actually processes the data) coming at us via on-line apps, how does one (this one, anyway) separate the wheat (stuff that’s of intereste) from the chaf (all the rest of the stuff).

    This is the MAJOR issue I have with all the various and diverse on-line apps available for use (abuse).

    Eileen…in Cleveland, OH