Taking the twit out of Twitter and finding value
A challenge from a former Howard Government spin-doctor on Twitter this week set me to thinking, not for the first time, about how journalists, especially ABC journalists, in the age of social media, can maintain and protect their impartiality.
You should know first that I use Twitter mainly to disseminate work by other people that interests me. I post links to articles, essays, video or audio, and jokes to leaven the mix, which reflect the fairly wide selection of reading I do on the internet every day.
A proportion of what I post is also breaking news. So for example, when the Deputy Speakership was decided this week, I posted three ‘tweets’ in quick succession, giving the vote numbers: one from @annabelcrabb, one from the political blogger @mfarnsworth, and one from @ABCNews.
In quick succession, they would have indicated to anyone following, not only that there was a result, 78-71, but that, confirmed by three reliable sources, there was no doubt about its accuracy.
In effect, then, I use Twitter as a “microblog”.
The spin-doctor, Ian Hanke, asked me this: “When you recycle other work how can you verify its accuracy? Is this rite for a journo to regurgitate?”
It’s a perfectly good question, but I think it misunderstands the nature of what I do on Twitter, and maybe of Twitter itself.
I answered it in 140-character bursts, but here’s the longer and perhaps more nuanced version.
I’ll go to the question of verifying accuracy first, because it’s fairly simple to answer.
I’ve already mentioned the Deputy Speakership, and the use of three sources: essentially that’s what I do on all issues of fact.
It’s a standard journalistic precaution: be careful not to break too soon on unverified information.
I wrote about it in a speech I gave about Iran last year:
There was what the intelligence people call a lot of static or chatter - a vast amount of miscellaneous material coming out of Iran on Twitter, with no way of verifying it absolutely. But if you had a sharp eye for detail, you could pick up indications of whether someone was reliable or not. If it referred to protest action in a particular square, were other people saying the same thing? Quite often I would find three twitter sources, all apparently in different parts of the crowd, reporting on the same event, though from a different perspective. Time came into the judgment as well. Was this someone whose tweets yesterday and the day before had been proved to be true by other reports later? One twitter user, Change_for_Iran, reported in a series of messages being under siege in a dormitory. Another Twitterer, from another part of the campus, reported seeing the same thing from another angle. A day later, pictures started coming through of the damage done in the attack. It starts to add up to something like credibility.
That’s how I deal with fact: what about opinion?
“The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the management”. It’s a journalistic cliche, but newspapers have been using the formula for decades precisely because it expresses something real.
The media, in my view, should not be a forum for a single point of view. There are plenty of outlets that do that, but I find them intellectually dull. London’s Fleet Street, for example, is full of them. You know, when you pick up the Daily Mirror, that you’re going to get the Labour line. You know the Daily Mail is always going to trumpet the views of outraged Middle England.
The best forums are those where the battle of ideas can play out vigorously and freely, with as little as possible of kowtowing to the views of the editor, the proprietor, or any single controlling figure.
It’s that principle I try to apply when I link to articles about opinions and ideas from around the world: that and a desire to spread good writing and vigorous discussion.
As I told Ian Hanke, “I often RT [Re-Tweet] two or more differing opinions without agreeing fully with any of them - to air the arguments”.
Of course, I have to accept that people who follow me over time will make assumptions about what I do and don’t agree with. Sometimes they’ll be right, sometimes wrong. I have striven throughout my career not only to appear, but to be, fair to all sides in politics, something I don’t find hard because I’ve never belonged to a political party or been tempted to.
I don’t link to a lot of articles about Australian politics, but when I do, it’s because they’re exceptionally well-written or contain unusual insights, not because I endorse everything in them.
I’m not a political eunuch though, and in international affairs, even within the bounds of my ABC role it’s possible to express some opinions.
I don’t like dictatorships. I don’t like regimes that imprison writers and dissidents. I don’t like torture.
I read ‘1984’ and ‘Darkness At Noon’ at an impressionable age, and I got the message.
I reported from the Soviet Union and its satellites, and from apartheid South Africa, and I travelled through China in the throes of the Cultural revolution.
My heroes include Andrei Sakharov, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel.
I have a policy of vigorously spreading news about the oppressed, the tortured and the gagged in countries like Iran, Burma and North Korea.
I have therefore had no hesitation, for instance, in drawing people’s attention to the plight of the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo.
Beijing says “there are no dissidents in China” and insists that Liu is in jail “because he violated Chinese law”.
But no independent observer believes he’s in prison for anything but the crime of co-authoring Charter 08.
China is now furious, and piling pressure on Norway’s Government, because Havel and Tutu have added their names to a petition to the Nobel Prize Committee to give Liu Xiaobo the Peace Prize.
One little Twitter account is unlikely to have much influence on that process, but I make no apologies for trying anyway.
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