Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Michael Jackson's death - Twitter-style

I'm just back from Prague where the newspapers on Friday led not on the death of Michael Jackson but on the serious floods in the south of the Czech Republic. One newspaper carried a nib about Jackson's death on the front page but otherwise there was nothing. Of course I might have missed something (my Czech isn't what it should be and newspapers there may have earlier deadlines), but the contrast between this and the media hysteria generated by the UK press was quite startling. Like Roy Greenslade, I would use the word "overkill" to describe the acres of newsprint about Jackson which greeted me on my return. I'd say the Czech press had its priorities right.

But from an online journalism research perspective, the interesting thing about coverage of Jackson's death was that it provided yet more evidence of the growing role of Twitter in breaking and passing on news. Unlike Iran or Mumbai, this was not a life or death event (except for Jackson, of course) and Twitterers were sharing links and news rather than acting as eyewitnesses. But again Twitter seized the initial news agenda from the mainstream press. Citizen journalism in action?

Yes, on one level. But as comments left on Robert Niles' blog at the Online Journalism Review suggest, tweeting is still a minority activity, tweets aren't always accurate and it's often the same voices leading the conversation. It still needs the reach of the mainstream media to bring the news to the majority (including the news that the story broke on Twitter and the site crashed).

Of course, the mainstream media may be among those tweeting most loudly. Growing numbers of journalists are using it to share information and source contacts. The jury is still out on whether Twitter is a great piece of technology or a fad but it looks as if it's becoming a virtual telephone, contact book and notebook for a significant minority. And mainstream news sites including Times Online and the Guardian have been using Twitter feeds from reporters on the spot effectively at high profile news events like the G20 demonstrations. As with blogs, journalists are moving into geek territory and appropriating the tools to change the way they do their jobs. Chuck that notebook in the bin. On second thoughts, don't. That's the difference between being a professional journalist and being a member of the public.

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