Over the past few years, social media has become an enormous part of the lives of many. Studies show we spend hours online per day, and much of this time is spent perusing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like. And apart from stalking old school friends who have become more successful than you, or (for some) discovering what Kim K’s latest move is, these have also become platforms for people to openly share their views, exercise their right to free speech, and learn what others think about relevant and important issues. This activity on social media has led to many news publishers embedding tweets in their online stories, or further, basing an entire story around a strong public reaction to a tweet. So, we decided to ask ‘why?’
One particular instance which drew our attention to this debate was a recent Twitter interaction between comedian Jemaine Clement and former Bachelor NZ contestant Matilda Rice.
News of the tweets quickly gained traction, and next thing it was on the Herald. In response Clement tweeted:
How many times do I have to tweet "Newspapers who print tweets as news are a bit shit" to get it made into a story?— Jemaine Clement (@AJemaineClement) August 4, 2015
Other social media examples are a recent comment by Golden Dawn owner Mathew Crawley about the kinds of customers visiting the bar as well as Ekim Burger owner Mike Duffy’s comments after a customer accused his restaurant of giving her son food poisoning.
Of course, it’s not just seemingly controversial tweets that are used as news. Tweets have also been embedded into stories to see how the public has reacted to an issue. For example, the Twitter reactions to the New Zealand flag options.
So what do newsmakers think? Should tweets be used as a gauge of public opinion?
“If a message is posted on an open public forum, like Twitter, it's fair game," says Radio New Zealand (RNZ) digital features editor Marcus Stickley. "If you're posting to the public, it's just like the words someone speaks in a public speech or writes in a print publication,”
“News outlets have a responsibility to verify, provide context and ensure reporting is accurate – just like any other story,” he says.
Whether a tweet is used in a story, or not, all comes down to public interest and news value, he says. “Tweets are often used to provide colour and comment on an issue that's being debated in public. Embedding tweets is a straightforward way to snapshot a range of views on an issue in an online story.”
But what about the finite number of people on Twitter, is this an accurate sample of the populace?
“There is a danger in canvassing views in what can be an echo chamber,” he says.
“But there's also the ability to search, which means you can use the key words being used to describe an issue to get an idea of the range of opinions being expressed. Twitter shouldn't be used as a statistical survey, but it can provide a snapshot.”
According to a UK Ofcom communications study, in the UK more than seven in ten adult Internet users (72 percent) have a social media profile, and social media use is correlated to age.
A majority of internet users aged 16-24 (93 percent), 25-34 (90 percent), 35-44 (80 percent) and 45-54 (68 percent) have a social media profile, such as a Facebook or Twitter account. This compares to half of 55-64s (49 percent) and three in ten aged 65-plus. It said Twitter users were equally as likely to follow celebrities as they are to follow friends. And when asked about the type of Twitter feed they followed, the most popular type was ‘news’, at 50 percent of account holders, so it's also becoming more common for social media to be used as a news source. Aside from ‘re-tweeting’, ‘news’ was the topic that people were most likely to tweet about, with 33 percent doing this (not surprisingly, this was followed by complaints or frustrations, with almost a quarter tweeting in this way).
Though this is a UK study, it would seem likely that there is a similar trend in New Zealand, in that Twitter users are predominantly younger people. A US study appears to show similar results.
So, with this in mind, selecting a range of opinions from a trending topic on Twitter might reflect diverse opinions. But they are likely predominantly the opinions of younger people.
Hive News publisher Bernard Hickey says the use of tweets in news articles is a natural consequence of asking fewer reporters to fill the same publications and news time slots.
“It’s an efficient way to get reaction and comment into an article without having to do the time-consuming work of ringing around,” he says.
He also makes the interesting point that in some cases, Twitter can be the only way to get a more sincere view from a public figure.
“In some areas, such as sports and entertainment, Twitter can often be the only way to get authentic and accurate views from sports starts and celebrities because of the endemic use of PRs in these areas.”
But, he says, a Twitter-based article is not going to break a story or find an exclusive: “Newsmakers don’t tweet news they don’t want people to know, which is the real news.”
We contacted Fairfax on the issue, but it was unable to provide a response at this time. We also contacted NZME, which similarly couldn’t comment.
But as much as people might be annoyed by this, perhaps newsworthiness shouldn’t be determined from the source of the information, for example, if it comes from Twitter. After all it’s an opinion, from a real person that just happens to be on social media. Does it make it any less valid because it was typed instead of spoken? I don’t think so. Sure, it depends on who is tweeting/posting. A public official making an offensive or controversial comment is obviously more newsworthy than a random teenager in, say, Kentucky.
In saying that, as mentioned above, when news publishers use Twitter as a source for popular public opinion, it can’t be entirely accurate when Twitter users are generally of a younger demographic. Not everyone uses Twitter or expresses their opinion through social media.
And as Stickley mentioned earlier, there is also the danger of the echo chamber effect.
An example of this is Black Twitter, a loose community on Twitter of African Americans. Dexter Thomas writes on internet youth culture and social justice for the LA Times and reported on Black Twitter saying it paints a skewed picture. He says it gives journalists an easy way out from talking to actual black people.
Thomas also says people might be interested in observing African Americans but scared to speak to them so it leaves reporters with a 'safe black person' to talk to. He says people look at Twitter and say 'Oh, this is what black people think', when really the reporter is only talking about a fractured subset of black internet users. The content is then chosen and curated by white people and then shown to a white audience.
So, though social media sites, particularly Twitter, can be a great source for news and can help give a snapshot of some peoples’ opinions on issues, news publishers should be careful of how they use that information, make sure they aren’t repeatedly dipping into the same pool and be careful about what they select as ‘news’.