Is Twitter good or bad for political journalism?

With the Republican National Convention getting underway in Florida this week, the volume of political coverage is likely to explode, and therefore so is the volume of posts to Twitter and other social networks — something that was much more of a niche phenomenon during the last election campaign in 2008. While posting to Twitter was commonplace on the various candidate buses and at political events at that time, a political reporter for BuzzFeed says “now Twitter is the bus.” As a recent post at Politico noted, the hyper-connected and real-time nature of the political cycle now means that stories can emerge and get circulated almost everywhere with lightning speed, and that has changed the nature of the game. But is it good or bad for journalism?

The Politico piece, about an incident on Friday involving presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, calls it the “21-minute news cycle.” As Dylan Byers describes it, Romney made a comment at a campaign stop in Michigan about how no one had ever asked him for his birth certificate — a crack that appeared to refer to the controversial “birther” debate over where President Barack Obama was born. Within a matter of seconds, a reporter attending the event had posted the remark to Twitter, where it was then retweeted hundreds of times over the next few minutes (according to data Politico got from the Twitter-analytics service Topsy).

Political brush fires can erupt within minutes

Several minutes later, Politico and BuzzFeed had both posted items on it making the connection to the “birther” debate, and BuzzFeed had posted a video to YouTube of Romney making the statement. Within minutes, the Romney campaign had issued a comment saying the remark was taken out of context and that the candidate did not mean to dredge up the birth certificate issue again — a statement that was followed quickly by one from the Obama camp, which accused Romney of doing exactly that. Over the next few hours the news made its way to TV news shows and elsewhere, but most of the heat from the incident had more or less died down by the end of the day, and Byers noted that the event is a perfect example of how things have changed:

“Four years ago, the fallout from a controversial remark would have taken hours, if not a full day, to unfold. In 2012, social media, which enables reporters to file in real-time and puts increased pressure on campaigns to speed up their response time, has brought the pace of the news cycle down to a matter of minutes and seconds. The ‘one-day story’ — itself an archaic term in the 21st century — has become the one-hour story.”

This phenomenon is something we discussed at the paidContent 2012 conference in New York earlier this year, during a panel that I moderated with Vivian Schiller of NBC News and Josh Marshall of the political blog network Talking Points Memo. As Marshall described it, social media — including blogs such as his, which started the process that was later accelerated by Twitter and Facebook — have not only sped up the news cycle but have added new “vectors” that political analysts of all kinds have to take account of. In other words, instead of just paying attention to the New York Times and one or two political talk shows, everyone has to pay attention to Twitter as well, and to new sources of political content such as BuzzFeed and Huffington Post.

virus signYou could argue that the tendency for inconsequential or even irrelevant incidents to get blown out of proportion has increased thanks to Twitter and the appearance of “viral content” sites like BuzzFeed (which has been making a big push into the political sphere since it hired former Politico writer Ben Smith) and that is probably true. But then, such incidents also got blown out of proportion by television talk shows and news programs and newspaper columnists before blogs and Twitter and Facebook came along. In many ways, all those tools have done is speed up and enhance a process that has been under way for decades.

Irrelevant stories also burn out faster

During our conversation in June about social media and political coverage, Schiller also argued that the speed with which Twitter and other networks operate can be beneficial as well — since it can help defuse or tamp down an incorrect or ridiculous report that might otherwise have taken hours or even days to disprove through traditional media channels. As Byers noted in his story, the Romney comment might have turned into a multiple-day issue, as newspapers picked it up and it worked its way through the usual sources of political commentary, but instead it was mostly out of gas within a few hours. As reporter Sasha Issenberg put it:

“These little stories catch fire on Twitter more quickly than they did even with bloggers in 2008, but it also means that they burn out faster.”

There’s another element of Twitter and social media that could be beneficial during an election campaign, and that is the way that such tools allow for sources directly connected to events to comment and affect the news flow — something that could help alleviate the “pack journalism” effect that Jeff Jarvis and others have complained about, in which thousands of reporters congregate at a single event and repeat the same kinds of information over and over. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has written about how social media can be an effective tool to combat this phenomenon during events such as the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere, because it allows other non-traditional sources to become part of the narrative.

This phenomenon of having “the sources go direct,” as blogging pioneer Dave Winer has described it, is probably one of the biggest disruptive effects that Twitter has introduced into political journalism — and its impact, both positive and negative, is only going to become more obvious as the nation gets closer to the election. Whether it is primarily good or bad depends a lot on your perspective. Is it bad because there is more sound and fury that signifies nothing, or is it good because irrelevant stories burn themselves out more quickly and the sources of information have become broader?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users See-ming Lee and Nils Geylen