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Twinstant opinion

Robert Weedon | News | Wednesday 16th June 2010

The trouble with Twitter, the instant-ness of it, is that too many twits might make a twat.
David Cameron, Absolute Radio, 28 July 2009

Newspapers are desperate to keep up with the internet and 24 hour rolling news, and as a result of wanting to get one over on their rivals, newspapers increasingly use the internet for news gathering and opinion sources.

Whereas the print deadline used to be whenever they needed to get the copy to the printers, online newspaper articles, particularly about unexpected developments appear almost instantly after the event has occurred - take, for example, the ridiculous "bigot-gate" incident in the recent general election, which spiralled out of control within a matter of hours.

A newish development is that the online text service Twitter has started to be used as a serious source of opinion, sometimes from people directly linked to the story, but often just whichever celebrity has commented on an event. Sometimes they're just some uninformed bloke, sitting at his computer scribbling his own ignorant opinions. Um, yes, anyway...

A case in point is the recent broadcast mistake (inevitably referred to by headline as 'balls up' or 'own goal') made by ITV HD, who somehow managed to show an advert for Hyundai over a goal being scored in England's first World Cup Match. Looking at Image Dissectors' own Media News Aggregator, we can see that The Telegraph, surprisingly, were the first to "break the news" (although anyone watching on ITV HD had probably noticed already), followed swiftly by The Guardian and BBC News, and the next day by The Mail on Sunday.

Let's look at that Telegraph story, published about an hour after the event. Because the match was still taking place when that story was being written, the only source for an interview that could be found was "Andy Quinn-Williams, 46, landlord of the Three Tunnes in Hazel Grove, Stockport, Cheshire", who is such an obscure choice one can only assume the journalist either knows him, or was in the pub at the time. (Mr Quinn-Williams and his pub were getting a good free advert, as he also found himself requoted verbatin by The Sunday Times, The Daily Mirror, The Guardian and The Daily Star the next day).

His opinion was reinforced in the article by several Twitter users who had presumably appeared in the "follow feed" of the author of the article. Thus, we had opinions from Richard Madeley of daytime TV fame and Stephen Pollard, "editor of the Jewish Chronicle", both noted for their expertise on these matters. This was followed by another random 'tweet' from a normal member of the public, whose opinion he was understandably somewhat surprised to find quoted in the newspaper.

So what's the reasoning behind this recent trend?

One could say it is a wish to react quickly to instant developments around the world, allowing journalists to give readers a taste of public reaction as fast as possible without the need to go through the usual channels of phoning or emailing people for their responses. After all, these early online stories are often refined once more considered responses to the event are released.

Or it could just be because it's a quick, simple, and above all lazy way of gathering celebrities' opinions, or just those of the "the man on the street" on any given topic. The other big attraction is that these opinions are free, or at least considered to be free.

Indeed, this eagerness to gather news and even photographs from Twitter can backfire, for example in the recent case involving the Daily Mail, who used an unauthorised image taken from a TwitPic account to illustrate voting problems during the 2010 General Election.

Similarly, in June, the Mail managed to demonstrate another danger of simply using Twitter to source a story, when, in a follow-up to recent articles detailing problems with the new Apple iPhone4, journalist Richard Ashmore published a story about how Steve Jobs was thinking of issuing a recall. His source was the Twitter account of Steve Jobs, boss of Apple, or so he thought.

Unfortunately, this wasn't actually Steve Jobs' Twitter account, but instead a rather rubbish spoof account, even marked "parody" in the description. A rather embarrassing mistake, and one that probably wouldn't have happened if there had been less of a mad rush to print an article, and more time spent checking the article wasn't full of misleading information.

Journalists' increasing reliance on the online text service has begun to show by the often rather desperate newspaper stories spun directly off a 'tweet', usually when a politician or celebrity that a particular newspaper has a problem with make an offhand comment. The worst example I've seen so far is a story in the Daily Mail detailing how Chris Evans "retweeted" another user's somewhat poor taste joke about African Vuvuzulas.

Now, if he'd made this comment on his radio show, this might have been a story. If he'd written the joke, it also might have been a story. But essentially what the paper was reporting was the fact that he'd read it and thought it was amusing. It then proceeded to report other Twitter users' opinions on the fact that he'd retweeted it, and how it was all very bad taste, etc.

It seems as if the only thing the newspaper has set out to do is rely on non-Twitter users' ignorance of what a "retweet" is by implying that it was "his" joke. Unfortunately, as no grand-daughters were involved, and Chris Evans apologised almost instantly (on Twitter), this incident will probably just go in the dossier to be filed under "Chris Evans gaffes to be quoted when he does something worse".

It seems a bit cruel to single out Daily Mail (as I appear to have done for most of this article), as Twitter has become an obsession for most journalists. Some newspapers even employ journalists specifically to trawl through it looking for anything vaguely printable.

This leads to a somewhat skewed perception that if they're preoccupied with Twitter, the rest of the population must be too. If they're not discussing its supposed importance, they're worrying about whether it's working properly or not, especially following a recent update to its software. Let's not even get started on whether Stephen Fry has, or has not, started using the service again. For information on that, see every newspaper for the last few months.

Somewhat hearteningly, presumably in an attempt to dissuade fellow journalists from using "Tweets", the New York Times's standards editor, Phil Corbett has banned the use of the word "tweet" from appearing in the newspaper. What he perhaps didn't see was that this action, in turn, would generate a lot of comments, and therefore a lot more "tweets". Perhaps it's all an endless feedback loop?



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