4 Minute Roundup: Michael Jackson’s Death Rocks Web; Guardian Crowdsources

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at the way Michael Jackson's death yesterday played out online, going from TMZ to Twitter to the LA Times blog. Yesterday was a record traffic day for Yahoo, and Google News reacted like it was under a hack attack from the huge jump in search queries for Michael Jackson. Also, the Guardian is doing a massive crowdsourcing project to look over hundreds of thousands of documents of expenses from members of parliament.

Check it out:

4MR podcast 6-26-09.mp3

Background music is "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Outpouring of searches for the late Michael Jackson at Official Google blog

Losing Michael Jackson at Yahoo's Yodel Anecdotal blog

Michael Jackson Dies: Twitter Tributes Now 30% of Tweets at Mashable

Guardian Crowdsources Information about Parliament Members' Expenses at Poynter

Investigate your MP's expenses at the Guardian

MPs expenses -- what you've told us. So far at the Guardian

Four crowdsourcing lessons from the Guardian's (spectacular) expenses-scandal experiment at Nieman Journalism Lab

King of Twitter by Jeff Jarvis

Here's a graphical view of last week's MediaShift survey results. The question was "What websites do you trust most for news about Iran?"

survey grab for iran.jpg

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about when you really believed Michael Jackson died.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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How Will Iranian Protests Change Twitter?

There's been much ado about Twitter's role in the political protests in Iran, and for good reason. With the Iranian government expelling foreign journalists, outlets like CNN scrambled to uncover sources where they could. They found these sources among the din of unverifiable messages surfacing on Twitter. It's been fun reading mainstream media accounts of how Twitter is, in a sense, revolutionizing revolutions -- very "meta," no? If you aren't familiar with these recent events, MediaShift editor Mark Glaser has a very useful summary here.

But I've been more interested in the way this story has brought Twitter into the mainstream. That is, not Twitter's effect on the Iranian protests, but the protests' effect on Twitter.

Ok, I'll Join...and So Will the UN Secretary-General

I have a confession: I've made a good chunk of my living recently counseling clients on digital media strategies, yet I myself have abstained from jumping aboard the Twitter bandwagon until this past week. Sure, I've launched Twitter campaigns on behalf of clients and I do consider myself wise in the ways of microblogging best practices. But while I understood how organizations could use this channel to connect with certain audiences, I felt that, for personal correspondence, Twitter had a sort of a navel-gazing, quasi-exhibitionist feel about it. If something's worth sharing with a larger group, isn't it worth more than 140 characters? Besides, I was -- and continue to be -- a stickler for good grammar, so the idea of proudly publishing that SMS-style nouveau scrawl makes me nauseous.

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My friend Laura Fitton (who authored the just-released Twitter for Dummies") has been hassling me for quite a while to sign up, but I've been stubborn. Nevertheless, the Western media's reliance on Twitter as a primary source -- along with the technology's power to enable dissent in an otherwise stifling environment -- has inspired me to climb aboard.

Twitter was scheduled to go offline for routine maintenance last week, but the U.S. State Department requested that the service keep the information flow from Iran uninterrupted. If the continuous operation of Twitter is deemed important to our national interest, perhaps there's something to this. Perhaps I should stop being so self-conscious about using such a self-conscious communications tool.

It's not just the State Department that's giving a nod to Twitter in the wake of the protests. The United Nations is adding its voice, too. I've been talking lately with my friend Jim Landale, a public information officer at the UN. Landale's been working on a multiplatform campaign to mark the 100 day countdown to the UN's International Day of Peace. The campaign, called WMD: We Must Disarm, is jettisoning traditional promotional tools in favor of social networks in an effort to reach a "socially active audience." (You can follow the campaign on Twitter here).

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who's shown a willingness to use digital media tools in the past, has even started tweeting. Landale, who was part of the team that encouraged Ban's use of Twitter, shared with me how the Iranian elections have impacted the UN's decision to use Twitter:

This is obviously the first time that a Secretary-General of the United Nations has 'tweeted' and the first time (that we know about) that one of our campaigns has used multiple online platforms at once...There was some skepticism initially within the UN Headquarters at the idea of using Twitter, Facebook and MySpace for such an important campaign, rather than the traditional set of promotional tools, but we managed to overcome this by demonstrating how the campaign would work online...In addition, although we planned the campaign well ahead of the recent elections in Iran, the role Twitter has played in the demonstrations has also probably helped persuade doubters within our own ranks that Twitter and other social networking sites can be an extremely powerful tool.

A Look Forward: Twitter and Limitations

Peggy Noonan, whose column is the sole reason I buy the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, had a thoughtful take on new technology's role in the recent Iran protests. She notes that Twitter and YouTube may have become powerful expression tools for existing sentiment, but acknowledges that they don't, by themselves, create that sentiment. What will be most interesting, she suggests, is how Twitter will be used moving forward. Using the French Revolution as a proxy, she writes:

If they Twittered and live-blogged the French Revolution, it still would have been the French Revolution: 'this aft 3pm @ the bastille.' It all still would have happened, perhaps with marginally greater support...The interesting question is what technology would have done after the Revolution, during the Terror. What would word of the demonic violence, the tumbrels and non-stop guillotines unleashed circa 1790-95 have done to French support for the Revolution, and world support? Would Thomas Jefferson have been able to continue his blithe indifference if reports of France grimly murdering France had been Twittered out each day?

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The answer, of course, is "no." And the point, of course, is that Twitter can enrich the newsgathering ability of the mainstream media by acting as an investigative tool, a harbinger of public sentiment , and/or a crowdsourcing device. But Twitter itself is not -- and should not be -- the story here (except for outlets like this that cover this beat). Instead, it's part of the storytelling apparatus. It's no longer a grand phenomenon, but is instead a mere fragment of the mainstream media's new configuration.

Journalists should use Twitter to better understand the Iranian rebellion, not use the Iranian rebellion to tout a "Twitter Revolution." By focusing too heavily -- and headily -- on a simple micro-blogging technology, the news media risk distracting themselves from the more macroscopic, geopolitical issues at play here. If the mainstream news media can't get over its impulse to hype their shiny new tool, they will be enfeebled by the same kind of navel-gazing I thought Twitter was all about...until now.

Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He's more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he's currently pursuing a master's in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.

Iran protest photo collected but not taken by Misterarasmus via Flickr.

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The King of Twitter

Reporters have been calling today looking into the importance of Twitter and social media in the two big stories of the month: Iran and Michael Jackson. Have we come to a next step stage in social media’s impact on news? Maybe.

Certainly the Jackson news spread quickly via Twitter. TMZ.com got the news first and it spread from tweet to retweet and then it spread beyond the web as each of those Twitterers acted as a node in a real-life network. An AP reporter told me she was riding on a bus when someone came on and announced the news to all the passengers – that person was a node, the bus the network – and then everyone on the bus, she said, took out their smart phones and spread the news farther. The live, ubquitous, mobile web is an incredible distribution channel for news.

I also spoke with Tampa Bay’s Eric Deggans and we wondered together about the arc of the Jackson story in big media versus our media. I’ll just bet that the story will die off on Twitter trends, Technorati, YouTube, and Facebook sooner than it finally exhausts its welcome – and our patience – on cable news. Back in 2005, I said that TV news was paying more attention to Jackson’s trial than the audience was, as evidenced by discussion on blogs, which lost interest in the story long before TV did; indeed, they never obsessed on Jackson as TV did and TV believed we wanted to.

I think this also means that we are less captive to cable news. Since its birth, cable was the only way to stay constantly connected to a story as it happened, or allegedly so. But in the Jackson story, there really is no news. He’s still dead. All that follows is discussion and wouldn’t we really rather discuss it with our friends than Al Sharpton? Once the supernova of news explodes – taking down Twitter search and YouTube and jamming GoogleNews search – we probably to seek out TV, but it quickly says all it has to say and the rest is just repetition. If the Iraq War was the birth of CNN could Iran and Jackson mark the start of their decline in influence? Too soon to say.

Journalists end up playing new roles in the news ecosystem. Again, I followed the Iran story in the live blogs of The New York Times, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, and Andrew Sullivan and they performed new functions: curating, vetting, adding context, adding comment, seeking information, filling out the story, correcting misinformation. They worked with social media, quoting and distributing and reporting using it. I watched the filling out of the Neda video story as the Guardian called the man who uploaded it to YouTube and Paulo Coelho blogged about his friend in the video, the doctor who tried to save Neda. Piece by piece, the story came together before our eyes, in public. The journalists added considerable value. But this wasn’t product journalism: polishing a story once a day from inside the black box. This was process journalism and that ensured it was also collaborative journalism – social journalism, if you like.

The unfortuante truth about the confluence of these two stories – Jackson and Iran – is that the former pushes the latter off the front page, the constant cable attantion. But will it push Iran out of our consciousness and discussion? Again, we’ll see. I was in the car when I spoke with Eric but he told me that on Twitter, the trends were all but filled with Jackson – except for the Iran election, which was still there, in the middle. That renews my faith in us.

: LATER: Here’s the AP story.

Here’s Eric’s piece. And here’s the San Francisco Chronicle’s piece (curses to the editor to cut out reference to WWGD?).

: Interesting take from a lawyer who sees Jackson as a victim of the innovator’s dilemma.

Your Guide to Iran Election News Online

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From time to time, I'll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I've already covered Twitter, citizen journalism, alternative models for newspapers and other topics. This week I'll look at Iran election news online.

Background

After the presidential election in Iran on June 12, incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by a large margin not long after the polls closed. Then came questions about whether the vote was rigged, and rival candidate Mir-Hussein Mousavi called for protests. The resulting chaos involved mass protests, violence and killings in the streets of Tehran and other cities in Iran, and calls for a new election. During it all, Iran's government arrested journalists, would not allow them to report on protests, and blocked Internet sites or slowed down Net access to make it unusable.

With reporters restricted on the ground, that left the main reporting on demonstrations and violence to the citizens of Iran, who spread stories, photos and video through blogs and social networks. That made services such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube crucial to following the story as it unfolded the past couple weeks. But it also made it difficult to verify the information on all those sources. Soon CNN was warning viewers that the material it was getting from social networks was not verified -- leading to a swipe from Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show":

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

How This is Different

This was not the first conflict that included a repressive regime cutting off media coverage leading to citizens reporting online. In 2007, citizens and tourists played key roles in getting news out of Burma during protests by monks there. And the wider global blogosphere helped bring attention to jailed bloggers in Egypt, China and Iran in 2006, leading to their freedom. In late 2004, citizens helped capture the destruction of a massive tsunami in Southeast Asia when major media couldn't reach disaster zones.

But what was different this time was that more Westerners were connected through social networks than ever before. So when news started spreading through Twitter under the #IranElection hashtag, anyone on Twitter could follow reports as they came in minute by minute. Not only could they read what was going on but they could take action, re-tweeting accounts they trusted as true, and changing their photos green in solidarity with protesters.

The myth of this being a "Twitter revolution" was quickly debunked because so few people in Iran were using Twitter, and the authorities could easily go onto Twitter and subvert the memes being spread. But what made Twitter so powerful was its ability to get news out of the conflict zone to the wider world. And Twitter is extremely difficult for authorities to block because of its open API, meaning that people could continue to get news out by text-messaging or via apps such as Tweetie or Tweetdeck even if Twitter.com was being blocked by the government.

Plus, Iranians have long had to deal with the government blocking websites, so they know about getting around those blocks. And they have a flourishing blogosphere accustomed to organizing to help out jailed bloggers or to get information out when the state-run media is censored.

The Ecosystem of News

What's happening online is that the people formerly known as news consumers are now given access to all the raw material being captured by eyewitnesses. What is truth and what is fiction? Who is there and who is pretending to be there? Where and when was that video captured? How do I know that Twitter feed isn't from a government agent posing as a protester?

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Soon the viewer starts to figure out that there are various levels of trust they can associate with what they find online. There are the raw unverified feeds found via Twitter hashtags and Flickr tags. Then there are users on those services that have been reporting for a number of days, and who have been quoted or verified by others as being legitimate. Then there are sites such as Global Voices Online that have editors who know which bloggers to trust. Then there's the cell phone video of Neda Soltan, a young Iranian woman who was shot in the street and died. That video started as raw and unverified and eventually was shared, passed around, and the story and context came out to the wider world.

Over time, we start to find places online where we can trust the content, where people have proved their value in sharing valuable pieces of information. And they're not just trained editors and journalists at news organizations, though those people also play a role in verifying information, when possible, and providing context. Here's a roundup of some of the best sources on the fallout of the Iranian election.

Live Blogs

Iran Live-Blogging at Huffington Post by Nico Pitney

Iranian Presidential Election coverage at the NY Times' The Lede blog

Iran Crisis Live in the Guardian

The Daily Dish by Andrew Sullivan

Videos

Citizentube Channel on YouTube

Where Is My Election videos from inside Iran

iReports on Iran Election

Videos from IranDoost09

Twitter Feeds

Iran Unrest on Twazzup

Super-filtered #IranElection info from Current TV's Robin Sloan

Breaking Tweets' Middle East

Mousavi1388

Persiankiwi

IranElection09

StopAhmadi

Facebook Pages

Neda

Protest to Iran Election

Democracy for Iran

Where Is My Vote?

Map Mashups

2009 Tehran Election Protests

Embassies Accepting Injured People in Tehran

Mapping the Protests in Iran at the BBC

Independent Websites

Iran Focus

Tehran 24 photos from Iran

Tehran Bureau

Wikipedia's 2009 Iranian election protests page

Wikipedia's Iranian presidential election 2009 page

Aggregated Information

Iran Election on Alltop

Iran Election 2009 at Global Voices Online

Iran Election Watch at FriendFeed

Iran page on Daylife

Iran Conflict and Tragedy News at Allvoices

Iran Election Crisis at FairSpin (via Stephen Hood)

Yahoo Full Coverage of Iran

Articles and Blog Posts

America's Iranian Twitter Revolution at Open Anthropology

Coverage of the Protests: Twitter 1, CNN 0 at the Economist

Iran, citizen media and media attention by Ethan Zuckerman

Iranians find ways to bypass Net censors at News.com

The Revolution, in real-time by Joe Trippi

Twitter Is a Player In Iran's Drama at Washington Post

Twitter, Social Networks Deliver News of Protests in Iran at Poynter

The Web vs. the Republic of Iran at Technology Review


This list is just a start. Please add any trusted sources you have found to follow the news in Iran in the comments, and I'll update my list with any glaring omissions.

Protest photos by Milad Avazbeigi via Flickr.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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Adding value in the new news ecosystem

How can and should news organizations and others add value to the new news ecosystem that is being used in the Iran story?

Or to put the question another way: The New York Times keeps talking about how expensive its Baghdad bureau is and what a fix we’d be in without it. Well, the essential truth in Iran is that no one has a Tehran bureau (or if they do, it has been rendered useless by government diktat). So we have no choice but to replace that bureau with the people, with witnesses empowered to share what they see.

The New York Times, the Guardian, and Andrew Sullivan, to name three, have been doing impressive work with their live blogs, sifting through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, trying to add as much context and as many caveats as they can. The live blog is print’s equivalent of live TV; it is the way to cover a story such as this: process journalism over product journalism.

But clearly, in that coverage of and by the people, we are experiencing severe filter failure, to use Clay Shirky’s term. Look at the hundreds of tweets that emerge every minute and at the overuse of the word “confirmed” on them, which is meaningless if you don’t know who’s doing the confirming. There’s no way to tell who’s who, who’s there, who’s telling the truth, who’s not.

Note the repeated word: Who. The greatest value a news organization can add to this new news ecosystem is to identify, curate, vet, and train people. Ideally, that needs to happen before the big story breaks. But it can even be done outside the country, as I saw CNN do this morning, talking with a Columbia University student from Iran, who knew who was real and was there from her network of family and friends. Of course, even if you know the people you’re listening to, it’s impossible to know whether everything they say is true unless you can verify it yourself. But that’s the point: You can’t.

So you need to have the best head start you can have. The larger the network of people a news organization can organize, the better shape it will be in when news breaks, the better it can filter the reports that come – whether from people in that network or in the larger network of people those people know. The more people in the network, the more who can go to the scene of news or research closer to it – the more you can ask for help.

Global Voices is an example of this infrastructure: someone who knows someone who knows someone, each able to judge what the next in the chain is saying.

I’ve also been arguing that for journalists, saying what you don’t know is becoming as important as saying what you know. That is all the more critical as misinformation and rumor can spread at the speed of information online. So I imagine a news organization creating a kind of anti-wiki – a dynamic, collaborative Snopes: a list of what we don’t know so we can see what is unconfirmed and so these things can be confirmed – so journalists can add journalism.

On Twitter right now, for example, I’m seeing a great deal about people being taken to embassies instead of hospitals. It is possible for journalists to call their diplomatic sources and confirm at least that, check that off. We need structure around that process.

See also the post below about YouTube holding unique information about the provenance of video. YouTube should not reveal identifiable information about those sources. But news organizations should be able to contact YouTube to help sift through them and find out least which videos came from Iran.

News organizations could also equip their networks of witnesses. Alive in Baghdad distributed cameras to people there. Today, that can be done so much less expensively – think Flip cameras. Bild in Germany sold 21,000 of equivalent devices in five weeks. Michael Rosenblum is planning to distribute 100 Flips in Gaza.

How else can and should news organizations add value and structure to this very disorganized and live new world of news?

Rules of Engagement for Journalists on Twitter

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Twitter's role in the Iranian election aftermath leaves no doubt about its power as a global, real time, citizen-journalism style news wire service, along with a tool for facilitating dissent, while countering the view of Twitter as simply a zone for egotistical banality. But it also highlighted Twitter's role as a platform and content generator for traditional media outlets, along with some of the key dilemmas being faced by professional journalists in the Twittersphere.

I've been researching the ways in which journalists and traditional media outlets are using Twitter and exploring the ethical dilemmas raised by the clash of the private and the public for journalists in the sphere via interviews with Australian, US and South African journalists. And, while I'm convinced Twitter is now a vital journalistic tool for both reporting events and breaking down barriers between legacy media and its audiences, there are still multiple questions around professional journalists' activities on Twitter that require thoughtful, open debate.

While many journalists recognize Twitter's power as a reporting tool, some news organizations are still reluctant to embrace it while others have issued rules restraining their writers' use of the service. In this third installment of my Mediashift series on the intersection of journalism and Twitter, I'll attempt to determine the rules of engagement for tweeting journalists.

Rules of Engagement

Some media outlets are making tweeting almost compulsory for their journalists but others are much more cautious, or even ban journalists from tweeting on the job. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times , Bloomberg and AP (among others) have all introduced policies covering social media, partly in response to problems resulting from the unique mix of personal and professional information in the zone. Some of these policies have been criticized for missing the point of social media -- humanized interaction -- and too rigidly regulating journalists' tweeting.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The previous paragraph had referred to the newspapers' social media policies as "conservative." That descriptor was removed in recognition of the distinctions between their various policies, and in light of a comment from the Times' Jonathan Landman, below.]

But in Australia, journo-tweeting is largely unregulated by media outlets. None of the 25 Australian journalists I interviewed for this study (from Fairfax, News Ltd, ABC, ACP, Sky News and a range of smaller outlets) was aware of such a policy in their workplace. According to some of the interviewees, management ignorance could account for the absence of such policies. When asked why he thought his Australian employer didn't have a policy like the WSJ, one journalist responded, "They just don't get it."

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There's growing realization among employers, however, that guidelines may be a helpful adjunct to corporate editorial policies in the brave new world of social media. There's evidence of a policy shift at the powerful Fairfax group, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age. Asher Moses (who was at the center of the tweeting controversy featured in part two of this series) indicated that, even though there was no official policy, the company had expectations that he could tweet either for professional or personal use but not both.

And the ABC is currently consulting staff as a precursor to publishing new guidelines.

"I think they're still feeling their way on social networking sites. It's a new world and they're trying to figure out exactly how to approach it," prominent ABC presenter Leigh Sales said.

Newsrooms Blocking Twitter at Work

But some employers are either so afraid of the platform or so disdainful about its journalistic potential that they've tried to bar their reporters from even accessing Twitter in the workplace. The Sydney Star Observer's (SSO) Harley Dennett says he's denied access to both his Facebook and Twitter accounts at work via web filters on office computers.

"The publishing editor said staff can make those contacts in their own time," he explained. "But I get around that by using the Tweetie desktop and iPhone applications. I do so openly and unashamedly."

Nevertheless, Dennett's newspaper happily prints copy generated by his extra-curricular tweeting.

"During news conferences I declare if a story originated from Twitter, but my editor has never verbally acknowledged that," he said. "I can't explain the resistance to popular social media and networking websites. Personally, I would welcome some guidance from my employer on Twitter use, if it made sense at least."

The SSO's policy is clearly a short-sighted and narrow-minded approach to managing the issues raised by journalists' interactions with social networking sites but it's not an isolated example.

Jonathan Ancer, from South Africa's Independent Newspapers group, which publishes Johannesburg's The Star along with other influential titles, plans to use Twitter to help trainee journalists to write with brevity and clarity, but he is also barred from Twitter at work.

"When I tried to log onto Twitter a few days ago, I was surprised to find myself blocked with a note saying my attempt to access porn had been recorded," he said. "I think media companies should open up access to Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms because this is where people -- readers, eyeballs, etc. -- are going."

However, while individual journalists with the Independent group may have difficulty accessing Twitter, the company's online publication has a moderately active Twitter account. South Africa's media certainly need to make active use of Twitter ahead of the 2010 soccer World Cup when they'll be seeking the world's eyeballs.

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Meanwhile, in Australia, the Speaker of the Federal Parliament recently approved live tweeting from the floor of the House of Representatives during Question Time via cell or PC. This breaks a decades-long ban on reporting from inside the House. This will likely both enliven political reporting and make it impossible for resistant journalists and media outlets Down Under to continue holding out.

As Twitter becomes entrenched in daily reporting practice, it would seem appropriate for media organizations to update existing editorial guidelines to make them relevant to social media platforms like Twitter. But if they want to bank on the significant benefits that can flow from their participation in the Twittersphere (such as developing new audiences and enhancing traffic to their websites), they will need to ensure their journalists have unfettered access to the site and also be flexible about interactions in the space to encourage reporters to engage in conversations with their followers.

What principles guide J-Twits?

So, for those journalists who tweet according to their own personal code, what principles guide them? For the ABC's Leigh Sales, it's a mix of gut instinct and rules derived from industry experience.

"If I have even the slightest hesitation about posting something, for example, a slightly off-color witticism, I choose not to post it," she said. "I don't post gags about stories on which I may have to report seriously. I don't put any significant personal content on Twitter. I may occasionally say that I've been to a movie or express a like or dislike, but I don't engage in personal chit-chat...I view it as a professional tool."

Dave Earley from Brisbane's Courier Mail has changed his approach since Twitter began hitting the headlines.

"Until Twitter's recent media exposure, my Twitter account had remained relatively unknown in my workplace," he said. "Now that it's on the radar, I'm probably more conscious of what I say."

Early also chooses not to "tweet angry."

"I do try to make sure my tweets are never inflammatory, there's no point setting out to make enemies," he said.

For John Bergin of Sky News, it's a case of common sense and basic training.

"Our journalists receive legal training," he said. "Issues such as defamation, contempt of court, statutory restrictions and so forth should apply as much to the online world as they do in the offline. Obviously, anything that is private and confidential in a newsroom should remain so -- again, common sense and respect for the workplace and its people is paramount."

But Harley Dennett's approach is to tweet independently of his employer. This allows him to publicly criticize his paper and its policies if he desires -- an act which he believes demonstrates transparency and buys him credibility with his followers.

"Increasingly, I'm confident the best model is for the journo to have a direct relationship with their Twitter followers independent of the media outlet that employs him or her," he said. "The spectre of a big media outlet appearing to control what a journo says online would also really hamper that personal quality that Twitter can bring out of a conversation."

Lessons from Iran

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What information on Twitter is fair game for a journalist to report? There needs to be further discussion between media professionals, their employers, journalism academics and social media experts to help navigate this complex territory. But my preliminary views go like this: Although social media etiquette may not recognize a journalist's right to report any material published openly, the reality is that open Twitter accounts are a matter of permanent public record and fair game for journalists. While attribution is vital and it might be polite (but not necessary) to seek the approval of a Twitterer to quote them, I don't see anything unethical about using tweets in mainstream news coverage. However, the locked Twitter account is a more delicate matter. I'd suggest that a locked account amounts to an "off the record" comment which requires permission from the tweeter before re-publishing.

And does re-tweeting (or RT) -- re-publishing someone else's tweet -- equate to giving their tweets your professional stamp of approval if you tweet openly as a practicing journalist? If you are passing on information to your "followers," do you have an obligation to first establish the information's authenticity or acknowledge it as "unconfirmed" -- an obligation many journalists would feel if they were doing the same for a newspaper or broadcaster?

When I raised concerns this week about the practice of tweeters who openly identify as professional journalists re-tweeting without verification, in the context of the indiscriminate dissemination of tweets claiming to emanate from Iran, I found myself engaged in a lively discussion on Twitter. I asserted that when Patrick LaForge, an editor at the New York Times, re-tweeted (without acknowledgement of verification or absence thereof) a list of Iranian tweeters sourced from expert blogger Dave Winer (who had, in turn, passed on the list without verifying its contents) it amounted to an approval of that list. LaForge disagreed. NYU's Jay Rosen then reminded me not to expect open systems like Twitter to behave in the same manner expected of editorial systems.

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But while I agree with Rosen, my concern wasn't directed at the unmediated Twittersphere. Rather it was directed at the way journalists approach this flood of information. I'm of the view that professional journalists will be judged more harshly by society if they RT content which later proves to be false -- particularly in the context of a crisis. This goes to their professional credibility and their employer's.

Therefore, while I wouldn't for a minute suggest journalists step back from reporting on social media contributions flowing from zones like Iran, nor from repeating tweets purporting to represent witness accounts -- clearly these are valid contemporary storytelling devices -- I do think they need to critically assess information to the best of their capacity before republishing it and, if there's no way to do so, flag this with "unconfirmed" or some other abbreviated signal that the information has not been substantiated by the journalist.

In many international settings, there are legal as well as ethical imperatives to consider here. If you inadvertently RT a defamatory tweet in Australia, for example, arguing "I was just passing on a link," would not be a defense against a defamation action.

Writing in The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder advises readers to treat the flood of information from Iran like a CIA analyst would -- sifting it and weighing it up. I think that's sage advice for professional journalists operating on Twitter, too. The ABC provided a good example of an appropriate approach to this problem in their online amalgamation of the social media coverage of Iran by simply acknowledging that some of the content was unable to be substantiated. (These issues will be a theme at the #media140 conference to be held in Sydney later this year.)

Top 20 Take Away Tips for Tweeting Journos

1) Think before you tweet -- you can't delete an indiscreet tweet! (Well, you can, but it will survive in Twitter search for three months and it's likely live on as cached copy somewhere.)
2) Think carefully about what you're re-tweeting and acknowledge if it's unsubstantiated.

3) Be an active twit: tweet daily if you want your followers to stick.

4) Determine your Twitter identity.

5) Be human; be honest; be open; be active.

6) Don't lock your account if you want to use Twitter for reporting purposes -- this fosters distrust.

7) Twitter is a community, not just a one-way conversation or broadcast channel -- actively engage.

8) Check if your employer has a social media policy.

9) Be cautious when tweeting about your employer/workplace/colleagues.

10) Be a judicious follower -- don't be stingy but avoid following everyone as your list grows to avoid tweet bombardment.

11) If you quote a tweet, attribute it.

12) Expect your competitors to steal your leads if you tweet about them.

13) Don't tweet while angry or drunk.

14) Avoid racist, sexist, bigoted and otherwise offensive tweets and never abuse a follower.

15) Scrutinize crowdsourced stories closely.

16) Find people to follow. Foster followers by pilfering the lists of other twits.

17) Twitter is a 'time vampire' (via @anne_brand) -- you don't need to keep track of all tweets, so dip in and out through the day.

18) Prevent information overload by using an application such as Tweetdeck.

19) Add applications to your Internet-enabled mobile device to allow live-tweeting on the road.

20) Add value to your tweets with links, Twitpic and other applications for audio and video.

A useful resource: You can find a list of the top 100 Australian media professionals on Twitter compiled by @earleyedition here.

UPDATE: Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor of the New York Times, responds in comments to the contention that the Times had a "conservative" social media policy:

Actually, The New York Times does not have a conservative code of conduct for social media. It does not have any code of conduct for social media.

What it does have is a comprehensive set of ethical and practical standards compiled in a handbook, last issued in 2004 and updated and amended from time to time afterward. It is a guide for Times journalists in print, online, over the air and in life. One of the updates is entitled 'Using Facebook in Reporting.' It says, among other things, that social networking sites 'can be remarkably useful reporting tools.' It also sets forth some reasons for caution -- any tool, misused, can be dangerous.

You can read both the ethics guidelines and the Facebook update here and judge for yourself whether they are 'conservative' and/or clueless about social media. Personally, I think that's a bum rap...

The Times also has a social media editor, a new position. Her job is to identify the most promising journalistic uses of these tools and then to teach and encourage Times journalists to deploy them. It is quite possible that her work will include publishing her recommendations for all to see and use, maybe even in the form of a code. It will not miss the point of social media.

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She's been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.

Green Wave protest photo by Hamed Saber via Flickr

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‘No longer the province of elites’

In a Guardian interview, UK PM Gordon Brown says that the internet changes foreign affairs forever:

He described the internet era as “more tumultuous than any previous economic or social revolution”. “For centuries, individuals have been learning how to live with their next-door neighbours,” he added.

“Now, uniquely, we’re having to learn to live with people who we don’t know.

“People have now got the ability to speak to each other across continents, to join with each other in communities that are not based simply on territory, streets, but networks; and you’ve got the possibility of people building alliances right across the world.”

This, he said, has huge implications. “That flow of information means that foreign policy can never be the same again.

“You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.

“Foreign policy can no longer be the province of just a few elites.”

Neither government nor business nor education.