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Twitter? I Just Met Her: The New Journalism and the Arab Spring

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2011", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

If you’re a avid media watcher, then two things probably struck you about the Arab Spring. First, Al Jazeera helped the revolutions spread. Second, Twitter.

Yeah, I’m aware that last sentence is a fragment, but it describes the understanding most people have of social media’s new role in the world, which is that we really don’t know what that role is. We saw articles about “Tunisia’s Twitter revolution”, people tweeting from Tahrir square, then a book of tweets from Tahrir square, and even a new study saying that Twitter enabled the revolutions. Twitter, from basically everyone’s perspective, is changing the nature of news, making it faster, quicker and breaking-er.

If you’re a long time reader, you’ve probably read that we don’t like to “chase the news”. The day after Osama bin Laden was killed, we started a series on “Intelligence is Evidence”, and didn’t write in depth about his killing until almost two weeks later. We’ve never written about the death of Kim Jong il, or the final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. We love writing about the defense budget, but hardly ever respond to a specific policy decision.
We developed this policy for two reasons. The first is that other people do it better. If you want instant news, go to NPR, CNN or the New York Times. When it comes to rounding up news stories, Starbuck, the SWJ, the EarlyBird or NightWatch do a better job than we can. If you want instant opinion, go to ForeignPolicy.com or our blog roll. When it comes to writing quick, clever and intelligent responses to major events, Andrew Exum, Thomas Ricks, Dan Drezner, etc, can do a way better job than we can. It isn’t our style, nor our forte.

Second, most news can benefit from a “wait and see” attitude, because when breaking news gets it wrong, it gets it really wrong. For example:

- The images of Iraqis pulling down Saddam’s statue seemed at the time an expression of wild support for the U.S. invasion. Later reporting revealed it to be anything but.    

- After Gabrielle Giffords was shot, early reports blamed a disgruntled veteran. Our favorite news/radio/podcast hub/stations (NPR) erroneously claimed Giffords was dead, when she wasn’t.

- The week after Osama bin Laden was killed involved more rampant speculation than any news event ever. Period. The one book written so far has been denounced as “utter fabrication” by the military.

- Initial reports on the Fort Hood shooting identified three coordinated shooters, one of whom was killed himself. It ended up that Major Nadal Hassan acted as a lone gunmen.

We’re excited that social media (might) aid democratic revolutions--hell, even On Violence has a Twitter feed and a Facebook page--but we just don’t see Twitter fundamentally changing good journalism.

The key word being “good”. Long form journalism will, for the foreseeable future, remain the core of good journalism. I’d rather read a 4,000 word New Yorker or Granta article on the events in Egypt or Libya than watch countless hours of cable television. The Frontline episode on Assar Bashad told me more about Syria than countless Google News articles. The Economist briefings on the Arab Spring provided more reflection, commentary and nuance--and better predictions--than instant opinings. In short, longer form articles inform better; instant news provides the instant, but often fails on the news.

Unfortunately, the trend for ever faster news is only picking up steam. The Arab Spring saw the rise of self-described “Twitter journalists” who simply monitored Twitter and re-tweeted everything they could, and called it “new journalism.” CNN is an addicted crack whore who thinks its next fix will be found by airing its viewers’ tweets. And we are in the midst of a presidential election, which means more predictions about the future than are found in the Magic 8 Ball factory.

All we can say is, slow down and wait.

four comments

It was late when we were doing the final edit, and some of the later lines probably reflect that one of us has a head cold.

Que Sera Sera

Like passionate love making, the best journalism is slow and long. (Twitter is a hooker in this analogy.)

Whoa, careful who you go calling a hooker! But yeah, Twitter is fast and cheap.

Good news reporting should be sharp and to the point: Gaddafi is dead. Saddam has been captured. Osama has been killed and dumped in the ocean. What is there to get wrong? Quick analysis seems to be based on assumptions, as very little is known of the situation and the events surrounding it, and we all know what assumption is the mother of…

I think the largest problem with breaking news isn’t showing what happened as in the case of the downing of the Saddam Hussein statue, but that interpretation and analysis of events often follows. We can no longer simply have an update of events, but speculation of how what is happening will effect us or the world. As Charles said, very little of a situation can be known other than what is seen.