Quebec, Ink: Twitter without conscience (or context)

Imagine how Ernest Hemingway would have tweeted from Pamplona, or how George Orwell would have described his experiences in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, 140 characters at a time.

In a newsroom, the writers who stand out are the ones who imbue their work with personality. Not the purple prose types, in love with the sound of their own brilliance, but those who have learned the art of storytelling. They are constantly re-evaluating their own understanding of a story as it develops. Good news writers are like novelists — they let the story tell itself, but they also tug at it from different directions, giving it depth and width, exposing hidden dimensions.

All of the above require time — time to think, time to research, time to interview, to write, to re-write and even, on occasion, time to start all over again. Unfortunately, we are now living in a society where time seems to be the rarest of commodities. What we want often takes a backseat to when we want it.

And we want it now.

I was thinking about this Sunday night as I watched an impossibly fast slurry of tweets slide down my computer screen during Radio-Canada’s Quebec 2012 leadership debate. Journalists and pundits of every ilk were weighing in on #debatqc while the broadcast was still ongoing. I had to wonder why they bothered. It was the ultimate example of isolating commentary from context, because there was no way you could follow both at the same time.

Had I invited guests to my home to watch the debate only to have them chatter incessantly throughout,  I’d tell them to shut up or leave the room. A debate is not a sporting event where colour comments, background, stats and replays can help fill the time while we wait for a significant play to occur. There’s a good reason why you won’t find them on the big screens in sports bars.

* * *

The night of the first leaders’ debate, I was editing a story about the baseball tradition known as batting practice. In the story, a pitcher complained about “shagging” — chasing down balls hit into the outfield, a largely useless task given to the idle throwers during BP. The Los Angeles Angels’ Jason Isringhausen suggested that if anyone recorded the cluster of pitchers hanging out in the field, “It would just be bleep, bleep, bleep for an hour and a half. It’s gossip hour.”

That’s pretty much what happens when journalists are asked to live-tweet as part of their jobs. Like the shagging pitchers, there can be times where they actually use their professional skills, but in my experience, reporters’ tweets more often deal in gossip than they do storytelling.

But what else do you expect in 140 characters or less? Twitter is content without context, as many people are learning the hard way.

Take Neil Macdonald, a senior CBC news reporter whose tweets resulted in accusations of bias by what he called Internet “zealots,” people trolling for comments that will offend them. One group did, in fact, complain to the CBC, and Macdonald responded by closing his account and refusing to tweet again. Read the above links, which present both sides of the issue, and tell me that you wouldn’t have done the same as Macdonald.

Getting back to our storytellers, I’m saddened to see so many of their employers are making tweeting an integral part of the job. When you take skilled researchers and writers and ask them to whip out a few greeting cards on the way to their next press conference, you are not enriching the reader’s experience.

Imagine how Ernest Hemingway would have tweeted from Pamplona, or how George Orwell would have described his experiences in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, 140 characters at a time.

Just because the tool is in the toolbox doesn’t mean it should be used by everyone on every occasion. The mad race to get out the message, any message, creates a rush to judgment that impairs the journalistic process. Media managers should take time to think about that before they stop to tweet an announcement of their next live blog.

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His satirical observations about the city and province appear at least once a week in this space. Follow Quebec, Ink on Twitter at @quebecink

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