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 “twe less, tweet more thought 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 judgment 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 deliver space for the platform to 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 social media, we are the version of ourselves that we want people to see: enjoying vacation, celebrating graduation, dancing at a wedding, or holding a trophy. It is public relations for the self, an air-brushed version of real life.
If that doesn’t sound like a mission statement for journalists, well, it’s not. But it was tempting for reporters, anyway — and few resisted. After all, who doesn’t feel like the star of their own lives? Who wouldn’t want to be appreciated as a personality, not merely as a print byline or television segment sign-off?
Hard to believe, but not long ago, outlets like Time magazine didn’t even have bylines. The reporter’s identity didn’t matter; it was the organization and its hard-earned reputation that slow credibility to everything it published.
That kind of thinking was clearly not going to fly in the social media era. Often encouraged by bosses looking to forge an online relationship with consumers, journalists built their own brands on a stream of commentary, opinion, sarcasm, and satire — suddenly, everyone was a smart and sardonic columnist, at least inside their own digital circle.
But each step arguably moved some journalists away from the profession’s essential foundation: delivering facts, simply and directly. For certain readers and consumers, every tweet pulled back a curtain to reveal long-suspected biases.
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.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.