Why I’m glad James McLeod is back on Twitter

Twitter and social media are part of modern journalism, and we need to get used to it.

Those following the recent and controversial sexual assault trial of Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer Doug Snelgrove would have had a much more difficult time of it without the fine reporting of CBC journalist Glenn Payette.

Perhaps just as valuable as the published stories themselves was Payette’s Twitter feed. Tweeting, he provided the back-and-forth between prosecution, defense and witnesses. It was a real-time chronicle of court in action: the next best thing to watching it live on television. And it served an immense public value, allowing observers throughout the province and country far more clear and in-depth access to the trial than they would have had otherwise.

Payette’s expert Twitter coverage deserves kudos, and indeed readers tweeted their thanks to him.

Payette isn’t the only one putting Twitter to excellent use. CBC reporter Mark Quinn’s coverage via Twitter of the Dunphy Inquiry also allowed the public far greater access to the proceedings, whether they were following in real-time or catching up at the end of each day.

In both of these cases—and a growing number of others—the medium of Twitter is rendered so useful because not only does it allow a more immediate and greater depth of coverage, but when filtered through the journalist’s professional eye—their ability to identify what questions are key, what responses are significant, to identify contradictions or new information, and to merge that with an evocative depiction of the scene as it unfolds—it doesn’t just complement traditional journalism. It brings it to a whole new level.

Useful and innovative? Or a big waste of time?

On Jan. 2 of this year, Telegram reporter James McLeod gave up Twitter.

Last week I penned an op-ed titled “Why I Miss James McLeod’s Twitter Feed.” But then, just before it was published, McLeod scooped me by reactivating his Twitter feed. It was actually an astonishing coincidence, but I suppose I should be glad. Despite the necessary revisions to this piece, my point still stands.

I often disagree with McLeod’s commentaries, but he’s done some superb reporting and his work plays an important role in Newfoundland and Labrador politics and society.

So he did himself a disservice when he said, justifying his decision in The Telegram, that “my idiotic twitter feed is a million words — some of it news and politics, lots of it vapid observations, stupid arguments and meaningless rejoinders.”

McLeod’s Twitter feed has its ups and downs, for sure, but a lot of it is an important combination of news, observation, and informed commentary.

Tweeting from trials, rallies, and other events has enabled far more extensive real-time coverage than was possible before.

Journalists who are critical of Twitter have plenty of reasons to be. It’s impossible to engage in serious dialogue in 140 characters. The back-and-forth, instantaneous-yet-delayed nature of social media exchanges wastes far more time than written or oral debates took before the Internet was invented. And Twitter only displays the last 3,200 or so tweets, tempering its use as a long-term archive — though journalists could mitigate this limitation by archiving their feeds on a website, or perhaps the media outlets they work for ought to take that initiative.

But for all its shortcomings—and they are many—Twitter and other forms of social media offer benefits as well.

Tweeting from trials, rallies, and other events has enabled far more extensive real-time coverage than was possible before. And this means more information getting marked down into the historical record.

In previous eras, during moments of war, revolution or other turmoil, all the historical record had to rely on was the sparse note-taking of a handful of on-the-spot journalists. Those journalists had to get out alive, and with their notes intact. Then they had to reconstruct or make sense of what happened on the basis of those notes, and eventually this deeply sifted and distilled version of history might make it into print for some of us to buy.

Today, however, social media allows instantaneous coverage by thousands—professional journalists, citizen journalists, and bystanders alike—and with very little effort it’s all there for the historical record forever.

A snapshot of James McLeod’s Twitter feed from October 2016, when people protesting Muskrat Falls staged a sit-in at Confederation Building in St. John’s. Twitter.

McLeod’s Twitter feed is a gold mine for journalists, political scientists, historians and other researchers. As a politics reporter he has covered some key events in recent provincial history, and his Twitter feed serves as an important public and historical record of those events. It helps us remember who said what, and when, especially with items that didn’t seem important at the time but proved more significant down the road.

How many times have we hunted through the feed of McLeod—and others—looking to see what Minister X said at that press conference three years ago in response to someone’s question? A response which maybe no one would have recorded at the time because it didn’t seem significant, until the minister was found ignoring or denying it down the road? This kind of thing is important.

If a journalist hits the self-destruct button on their Twitter feed, they delete a treasure trove of historical and journalistic data. It’s book-burning for the 21st century.

Moreover, the commentary someone like McLeod’s Tweets produce on Twitter and social media is an extension of their journalistic craft; it’s often produced during work hours, while they’re on payroll for their employer, and in response to stories they were sent to cover as part of their work.

I’m all for writers controlling their intellectual property—which Twitter feeds are—but surely their employer or editor should also have some concerns about a journalist simply dynamiting it. Would The Telegram be as keen on its reporters permanently erasing stories they’d published from its print archives? Twitter is a much more crude form of reporting, but reporting it is.

We should use new technologies, not run from them

A little less than 150 years ago, a vicious debate erupted in the still-quite-young field of journalism. The source of this divisive conflict was a new and controversial journalistic tool, called ‘the interview’. Traditional, professional journalists recoiled in disgust. Interviews were not journalism, not by any stretch of the imagination.

“A portion of the daily newspapers in New York are bringing the profession of journalism into contempt so far as they can, by a kind of toadyism or flunkeyism, which they call interviewing,” wrote an anonymous contributor to the Chicago Tribune in 1869.

“The joint product of some humbug of a hack politician and another humbug of a newspaper reporter,” raged The Nation in 1869. “The most perfect contrivance yet devised to make journalism an offence, a thing of ill savour in all decent nostrils,” wrote the editor of Galaxy Magazine in 1874.

One of the early proponents of interviews, Pall Mall Gazette editor W.T Stead, admitted that critics of the interview considered it “[A] monstrous departure from the dignity and propriety of journalism.”

Frank A. Burr, a U.S. journalist writing in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890, offered a more thoughtful reflection, and one that today’s critics of social media’s role in journalism would do well to consider.

“Like all other changes in a great industry, the method has been abused both by interviewer and interviewed, fully as often by the latter as the former. But had it not been for the interview much valuable matter relating to the history of this country since 1860 would have been lost, not only to the nation, but to the nation’s [records].”

How right he was. And how right he is, if we substitute ‘interview’ with ‘Twitter.’ If McLeod’s Twitter feed had been erased, it would have been a loss to the recent political history of the province. A loss to our collective social history.

Journalists—like everyone else—ought to use social media with care. But they damn well ought to use it.

It’s good to see you back, James.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

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