Compare these two columns about Twitter: one by Mike DeArmond, a sports hack in Kansas City, and one by Roger Cohen in The New York Times. They are each frustrated that Twitter doesn’t fit into their set-in-concrete view of what they do and what journalism is – and how others fit in.
The sports guy’s column is, of course, the sillier:
Let’s quit tweet, tweet, tweeting like the birdbrains do. I don’t care what your friend had for lunch. . . .
I really don’t object to the message so much as the medium. . . .
I became a journalist because I love words. The way they can be used to paint an image, to link observation and explanation.
It is why I think it is wonderful to write about how some questions are so rambling that they climb the wall, scoot around a corner, take a stop in the men’s restroom, and only then arrive at their intended point.
You can’t do that with Twitter. You’re limited to 140 characters. And most people waste even those.
Twitter’s pitch is “Share and discover what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world.” That’s what it does — up to a point. It’s many things, including a formidable alerting system for a breaking story; a means of organization; a monitor of global interest levels (Iran trended highest for weeks until Michael Jackson’s death) and of media performance; a bank of essential links; a rich archive; and a community (“Twitter is my best friend.”)
But is it journalism? No. In fact journalism in many ways is the antithesis of the “Here Comes Everybody” — Clay Shirky’s good phrase — deluge of raw material that new social media deliver. For journalism is distillation. It is a choice of material, whether in words or image, made in pursuit of presenting the truest and fairest, most vivid and complete representation of a situation.
It comes into being only through an organizing intelligence, an organizing sensibility. It depends on form, an unfashionable little word, without which significance is lost to chaos. As Aristotle suggested more than two millennia ago, form requires a beginning and middle and end. It demands unity of theme. Journalism cuts through the atwitter state to thematic coherence.
In each case, The Journalist is confronted with something new and if it doesn’t fit in with their world and worldview, they find reasons to reject it, to diminish it, to make it the province of others, not The Journalist – because it’s The Journalist who is empowered to say what journalism is. DeArmond’s going for laughs, Cohen for profundity, but they’re each only showing that they are not imaginative enough to recognize the power that comes from a new tool – no, not the tool but the connection to the people who are using it. I’d never let my students get away with that. I always try to get them to look at a tool and see how it can be used to improve journalism, not just violate its age-old dictates.
In these screeds, we also get a glimpse of these Journalists’ definitions of journalism. I say that news was made into a product by the necessities and limitations of its means of production and distribution in print and broadcast. News is properly a process, I believe. Cohen says, no, it must have a beginning, middle, and end, a narrative he sets, an order he gives, a chaos he rejects. He says elsewhere in his column that presence is necessary to do journalism; he thus says that it takes a reporter to report, that news without the journalist him or herself bearing witness to it is not real news. He puts The Journalist at the center of news. I say the journalist is the servant of news. I tell my students to add journalistic value to what is already being spread – reporting, fact-checking, perspective, answers – but recognize that the news is there with or without them. It is gathered and spread by the people who see it and need it with new tools, like Twitter. Like it or not.