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March 26, 2021, 12:30 p.m.
Audience & Social

When journalists put tweets in news stories, do they transfer too much power to Twitter?

Journalists have transferred some of their own power over the presentation of current events to Twitter by normalizing the ways tweets are presented in news stories.

The new year brought new dimensions to the ongoing conversation on the power platforms have in hosting and shaping public discourse. When some people blamed social media companies for the disease of misinformation that spread more quickly even than Covid-19, others pointed to politicians as the source of the lies. But when Twitter and Facebook both took (belated but welcome) action to squelch those lies, even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey questioned whether platforms have too much power. These platforms’ leaders are appearing before Congress today, in part to address that very question.

Twitter has become especially central for news. There’s a lot that has been said about platformization, weakened media organizations, and a lack of regulation, and all of those factors play a role in Twitter’s prominence in the news ecosystem. But our latest study finds that journalists themselves have transferred some of their own power over the presentation of current events to Twitter by normalizing the ways tweets are presented in news stories. Journalists tend to present tweets as content — interchangeable building blocks of news — rather than like sources, whose ideas and messages must be subject to scrutiny and verification. This sends repeated messages to audiences that information on Twitter is legitimate and authoritative, granting Twitter power.

[Related: Think twice before turning to Twitter]

To understand how this happens, we have to understand where journalistic authority comes from in the first place.

There is no credential or certification required for journalists, and audiences are not obligated to grant them authority over current events. As a result, journalists must lay claim to authority over current events by consistently demonstrating it in their news reports. This may be done in many ways, but in short, it depends on journalists showing evidence of their process, particularly in explaining where information came from. Audiences grant journalists authority over news to the extent they can see journalists vetting sources, interrogating them, verifying information, and finally communicating it. In the process, journalists show who has power to speak and position themselves near those sources (both rhetorically and literally, in many cases).

Reliance on Twitter has short-circuited this process. Now what we see is a feedback loop: As Twitter becomes embedded in journalistic routine, journalists turn to it during news events. This leads journalists to use tweets in their stories, granting tweets markers of authority. It increases the likelihood that elites will use Twitter for future information releases, the likelihood that journalists will return to receive them, and the likelihood that audiences will become accustomed to seeing tweets as key aspects of news stories.

Treating tweets as content

We analyzed hundreds of news stories containing tweets published during 2018. We assembled this set of stories using Media Cloud, where we searched for news stories that contained tweets. We used a series of search strings (e.g. “tweeted,” “said in a tweet”) to find stories that simply paraphrased tweets, resulting in more than 23,000 articles. We randomly sampled 365 of these to read closely.

Rather than tagging specific characteristics of each tweet or story, we looked carefully for authority signals the piece gives to the audience. For instance, we asked, is the tweet left to speak for itself, or given context and qualification? Does the story refer to the tweet, or to its author as the source? Is this tweet the only way we hear from this person? And, perhaps most importantly, does this story exist only because someone tweeted? This last question detects cases where a tweet is the impetus for a news story, and especially where tweets are the primary source type in the story.

What we found was that most often journalists let tweets speak for themselves, on their own authority. Usually, the tweet is the only way the person speaks in the story, and there is no additional explanation, qualification, or context given. Twitter is quite often the frame of the story, or the story is about the tweet, especially in political reports. Pronouncements on Twitter are routinely taken at face value and reproduced in news reports as reliable representations of reality. The total effect of this presentation is to position Twitter nearest to power, thereby signaling to audiences that the platform has authority over news.

President Trump exerted a huge influence here, obviously, with about half the stories we analyzed referencing at least one of his tweets. But even if his Twitter behavior was exceptional, journalists followed only one set of rules, giving all tweets — Trump or not — effectively the same treatment. As is evident in other areas of public life, a powerful figure’s actions have in part set the tone for what is acceptable practice.

We also observed how information from tweets was displayed, noting that journalists variously quoted, paraphrased, and embedded tweets — and sometimes did all of these within a single story. It’s worth noting that embedded tweets will not be permanently available if they’re deleted or if Twitter changes its code.

Granting Twitter authority

Journalistic standards suggest that sources be interrogated. This treatment of sources is dictated by the journalistic values of verification and independence, which are essential to the press’s democratic mission. Content, on the other hand, is simply reproduced, which allows journalists to pass responsibility for content verification on to the original publisher. Content treatments reproduce information in tweets without visibly questioning its provenance or providing any further evidence of its legitimacy. Journalists overwhelmingly treat tweets as content.

This point echoes a longstanding criticism of journalism, but especially political journalism. When quoting an original source, journalists can maintain their claim on objectivity by accurately quoting that source, with or without verifying the content of the message. Sociologist Gaye Tuchman called this a “strategic ritual” of objectivity; others have called it “he-said-she-said” journalism; and this criticism has lately been foregrounded again as journalism observers question whether everything that falls out of a politician’s mouth should be considered news.

While our work refreshes this question, the key finding here is that Twitter takes a central role in brokering news information exchanges. Based on our understanding of journalistic authority, the more audiences see Twitter in this role, the more they associate it with informational authority.

This shift in authority from journalists to Twitter has profound implications for journalism and its role in society. Platforms already have amassed control of distribution, monetization, and audience measurement to such an extent that journalistic independence and accuracy are compromised by virtue of journalism’s reliance on this infrastructure. If in addition to this, Twitter exacerbates a journalistic tendency to pass along statements unverified, there are clear drawbacks for the information ecology.

Beyond this, Twitter exerting an outsized influence over sourcing and content decisions would compound another longstanding criticism of journalism: that it focuses too heavily on certain voices. Journalism has traditionally relied on official sources, leading to overrepresentation of powerful white men, thereby producing a skewed view of the world. Despite its potential to do so, use of Twitter doesn’t upend these traditional sourcing practices (and in some ways makes things worse).

There are now more opportunities to use social media to find and magnify marginalized voices, which has led to several success stories, including drawing mainstream attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. But even so, those voices are chosen from among a select cast of characters on Twitter: those who are present on the platform and adept at leveraging its affordances to generate attention. This group is demonstrably different from society as a whole. By influencing who can speak and whether their speech is interrogated before amplification, this shift in journalistic practice dramatically alters public discourse in a way that benefits Twitter, not journalism, not the public — and not democracy.

Logan Molyneux is an assistant professor in journalism at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication. Shannon McGregor is an assistant professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media and a senior researcher with the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Early sketch of a Twitter bird in 2009 by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 26, 2021, 12:30 p.m.
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