News as a process: How journalism works in the age of Twitter

We’ve written many times about how journalism is changing in the age of social media, thanks to what Om has called the “democracy of distribution” provided by tools like Twitter — and how everyone now has the opportunity to function as a journalist, even for a short time, during news events like the attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound. A new study of the way information flowed during the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year paints a fascinating picture of how what some call “news as a process” works, and the roles bloggers, mainstream media and other actors play during a breaking news event. More than anything, it’s a portrait of what the news looks like now.

The study, entitled “The Revolutions Were Tweeted: Information Flows During the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions,” was published in the International Journal of Communications, and involved several researchers from the Web Ecology Project, Gilad Lotan from the social-media service Social Flow, and Microsoft (s msft) researcher and sociologist Danah Boyd. (A PDF version of the study is available here.) The researchers looked at two datasets: one composed of 168,000 tweets from January 12 to 19 that contained hashtags such as #sidibouzid and #tunisia, and one composed of 230,000 tweets from January 24 to 29, containing hashtags such as #egypt or #jan25 (the date of a mass demonstration that played a key role in the subsequent Egyptian revolution).

The research broke those who tweeted about both events down into a number of groups of “key actors” — including activists, mainstream media outlets, individual journalists, bloggers, digerati and celebrities — and then tracked how information about various events during both periods flowed from one source to another. One interesting aspect of the study is that some key players in both events were almost impossible to classify as belonging to a single group. Jillian York, for example, is a researcher who works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation but is also a prominent blogger for Global Voices and is passionate about issues in the Arab world.

Twitter becomes a crowdsourced newswire

As the study describes, Twitter has come to play a crucial role in the way that news functions during events like the Egyptian revolution — like a crowdsourced newswire filled with everything from breaking news to rumor and everything in between, and one that both uses and is used by mainstream media:

The shift from an era of broadcast mass media to one of networked digital media has altered both information flows and the nature of news work… during unplanned or critical world events such as the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, MSM turn to Twitter, both to learn from on-the-ground sources, and to rapidly distribute updates.

The evolution of what media theorist Jeff Jarvis and others have called “networked journalism” has made the business of news much more chaotic, since it now consists of thousands of voices instead of just a few prominent ones who happen to have the tools to make themselves heard. If there is a growth area in media, it is in the field of “curated news,” where real-time filters like NPR’s Andy Carvin or the BBC’s user-generated-content desk verify and re-distribute the news that comes in from tens of thousands of sources, and use tools like Storify to present a coherent picture of what is happening on the ground.

The study makes the point that mainstream media outlets play a key role in the dissemination of news during such events (and also notes that journalists tend to retweet other journalists more often than they do non-mainstream sources), but it also makes it obvious that prominent bloggers and activists are crucial information conduits as well. In graphic representations created by Global Voices using the study’s data, for example, blogger Nasser Wedaddy is a key hub that distributes information to bloggers, activists and mainstream media. (Here’s another fascinating visualization of networked data flows in Egypt during the revolution in February.)

It’s called social media for a reason

As noted by Nancy Messieh at The Next Web, one of the additional points the study makes is that the personal Twitter accounts belonging to journalists were far more likely to be retweeted or engaged with by others than official accounts for the media outlets they worked for. The point here is one we have tried to make repeatedly: Social media is called social for a reason. It’s about human beings connecting with other human beings around an event, and the more that media outlets try to stifle the human aspect of these tools — through repressive social-media policies, for example — the less likely they will be to benefit from using them.

Another benefit of a distributed or networked version of journalism is one sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has made in the course of her research into how Twitter and other social tools affected the events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. As she wrote in a recent blog post, one of the realities of mainstream media is what is often called “pack journalism”:┬áthe kind that sees hundreds of journalists show up for official briefings by government or military sources, but few pursue their own stories outside the official sphere. Social media and “citizen journalism,” Tufekci says, can be a powerful antidote to this kind of process, and that’s fundamentally a positive force for journalism.

As we look at the way news and information flows in this new world of social networks, and what Andy Carvin has called “random acts of journalism” by those who may not even see themselves as journalists, it’s easy to get distracted by how chaotic the process seems, and how difficult it is to separate the signal from the noise. But more information is better — even if it requires new skills on the part of journalists when it comes to filtering that information — and journalism, as Jay Rosen has pointed out, tends to get better when more people do it.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen