Why Twitter Can Be Bad for Journalism

Why Twitter Can Be Bad for Journalism

I was enchanted by Twitter on the opening day of Brainstorm Green.
By creating what’s called a hashtag for the event – in this case,
#FortuneGreen – those of us who organized the Fortune conference about
business and the environment encouraged people at the event to tweet
about it. And we made it easy for anyone to follow or search for a
stream of tweets from the event.

digg_url = ‘http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2009/04/23/why-twitter-can-be-bad-journalism’;

So I opened my laptop and, in real time, read dispatches from the
event: What was being said, what others thought about about what was
being said, big ideas, trivial observations, critiques of our speaker,
links to photos from the scene–all in 140 characters or less, the limit
on the size of messages that can flow through Twitter. (For an
explanation of Twitter, see this.)
While the size of each message is limited, there’s no limit on the
number of 140-character dispatches you can send. So people, including
me, were sending out dozens of tweets per hour.

By searching Twitter (at http://search.twitter.com/)
for Tweets containing #FortuneGreen—are you still with me here?—anyone
can see everything that was said about the event. Kind of fun. Some
examples from today’s session, and I won’t try to translate all the
shorthand now:

oppgreen: http://twitpic.com/3sv27 - Cowboy Clinton at #fortunegreen today…check out his cowboy boots…yeehaw!

patrickdo: @mlamonica thanks for the link, great story on Bill Clinton at #fortunegreen

mlamonica: Green business is key to tackling climate change, says Bill Clinton. link to full story this time http://t.cnet.com/4g #fortunegreen

DavidSwardlick: Pres. Clinton - the only morally accepable way to
controll population in the world is to help get all the girls into
schools #FortuneGreen

Milieunet: RT @greenwombat: Clinton: Arizona & Nevada: “Those
are two of the places it would be easiest to make energy independent.”

You get the idea.

Anyway, I was tweeting merrily along after moderating a panel on
climate change politics in Washington when I sent out the following:

MarcGunther: EDF’s Fred Krupp, NRG’s David Crane, Duke’s Jim Rogers
say, give away 100% of permits under cap and trade at first

During my panel, I had understood Fred Krupp of the Environmental
Defense Fund, CEO David Crane of NRG Energy and Jim Rogers, the CEO of
Duke Energy, who all belong to the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, to
say that all of the allowances under a cap-and-trade program for carbon
emissions should initially be given away. The question of whether to
give away or auction those allowances—essentially, permits to
pollute—is a contentious one, for reasons not worth going into here. To
my surprise, my tweet set off a bit of a storm in the world of energy
and environmental bloggers, including some not at the event.

My tweet turned out to be the result of a miscommunication or
misunderstanding on my part. Of course, since I was reporting live
during the event, I didn’t bother to check my facts. I don’t blame
Twitter for that. That was my fault.

But I learned two lessons that would have been obvious had I done a
little more thinking and a little less tweeting. Lesson No. 1 is this:
Trying to cover an event live on Twitter—especially if you are a
participant, as I was—doesn’t allow time to check facts or seek out an
alternative point of view or think for more than a few seconds about
what to say. There’s not enough time to do anything but tweet. In fact,
it’s hard just to tweet and pay attention. You’re multitasking. It’s
closer to court stenography or simultaneous translation than to real
journalism, which requires sifting and thinking. Or at least it should.

Lesson No. 2: There’s not much you can do when you make a mistake on
Twitter, particularly if you are dealing with a complex subject. After
trading emails with bloggers, NRDC and EDF, I got the following from
Dave Hawkins, NRDC’s leading climate expert, who was with us at
Brainstorm Green:

What USCAP recommends is that nearly all allocations go,
not to emitters, but for consumer rebates/dividends, low-carbon
technology, efficiency, low–income protection, adaptation, and
international engagement. That includes initial allocations to local
distribution companies, with a requirement that the value be passed
through to customers and/or invested in efficiency….

You asked about NRDC’s position on allowance distribution. It is set
forth in the attached Cap 2.0 proposal and we believe it is consistent
with the USCAP Blueprint. It is on the web at
As you can see from figures 2 and 3 of the document, allowance value is
focused on clean and advanced energy deployment, efficiency, and
consumer dividends from the start and after 15 years all value would go
back to consumers as dividends. Of the estimated $100 billion annual
value at the start of the program about $8.9 billion is proposed for
distribution to energy-intensive industry to prevent off-shoring of
production and emissions from these industries. This gets phased down
over the initial 15 years of the program.
In 2012 more than $51 billion per year would go directly for efficiency
and low-carbon energy RD&D and deployment, with more of the
remainder going to consumer rebates and dividends, adaptation, forestry
and agriculture incentives, and international engagement.

Try saying that in 140 characters. Even if I could, it would now be
impossible to reaggregate the audience that read the original mistaken
tweet. All I can do now is send out a tweet about this blogpost—my best
effort to correct the mistake.

The real mistake, though, is trying to cover a story in little live
bursts. You can’t concentrate, you can’t think, you can’t convey a
complex idea, you can’t persuade or explain. That’s why Twitter is bad
for journalism–or, more specifically, it is not the right vehicle
within which to do journalism.

Twitter will good for journalism in other ways. It’s an effective
way to point other people to content on the web. By following others’
tweets, I’ve discovered blogs or stories I would otherwise have missed.
I’ve quickly collected several hundred “followers” in just a few weeks,
so I can tell about what I’m writing or reading.

Twitter’s valuable in other ways, too. It’s a real-time window into
what people are doing and thinking and talking about. It has enormous
potential, already demonstrated,
as an organizing tool. Anyone in the communications business probably
ought to play around with Twitter and other social media like Facebook.

But I had a brief chat with Peter Darbee, the CEO of PG&E Corp.,
during Brainstorm Green that has stuck in my mind longer than any
tweet. He told me that he’s going to cut back on some of his day-to-day
work so that he can carve out a couple of hours every day for thinking.
Imagine that. Just thinking–no phone, email, meetings or,presumably,
tweets. I can’t remember the last time I spent 15 minutes thinking,
unless you count time I spend running. Something’s lost because of all
the attention we devote to Gmail and blogs and Facebook and Twitter. As
Joni Mitchell put it, “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know
what you got till it’s gone.”