Weekly Feature

2010-05-13 / Editorial

Archiving tweets means dumbing down journalism

At the risk of compounding the senior generation’s reputation for old fogyness, here’s a warning about the latest virus of so-called social networking that is infecting American journalism.

The august Library of Congress has decided to spend untold millions on archiving Twitter, that latest open exercise in getting off your chest in print anything that crosses your mind, in 140 characters or fewer.

Announcement of the scheme came recently in San Francisco in a speech by Twitter’s CEO, Evan Williams, in what was oh-so-cutely called its Chirp Conference. The library itself sent out a tweet that read in part: “Library acquires ENTIRE Twitter archive. ALL tweets.”

Twitter, according to Williams, chirps that it transmits more than 50 million such mini-messages a day from more than 105 million registered users. Personal messages won’t be archived, according to the library, which will focus on tweets that have “scholarly and research implications.”

The tweet, which seems too often to be an unedited burp from the mouth of a diner overfed with trivia, strikes me as a poor cousin of the blog, that unlimited and too often also unedited vomiting of opinion, diatribe, rumor, or just plain bigotry and hate.

The Twitter phenomenon may be as amusing and as harmless as chatter over your back fence. But when it is treated as a serious part of the national information flow not subject to standards of truth, accuracy and fairness, it can indeed become a poisonous virus. What is the difference between a blog and writing an opinion newspaper column like this one, anyway? They both often express the writer’s personal opinion on an issue or an individual of current news interest. In my case, the column is regularly reviewed by a professional editor at the syndicate that distributes it before release, subject to the editor’s satisfaction.

Many bloggers at major news organizations or Web sites are similarly vetted, but not all, and many are afforded a much looser leash, as are many of their electronic counterparts on radio and cable television. When rumor, prospective slander, libel or just plain inaccuracy gets through, the credibility of all journalism suffers. No lament from an old print practitioner is going to slay the tweeting and the blogging. But an occasional alert to the reader of the erosive quality of careless or even dishonest writing seems warranted if the expanding fraternity of news-deliverers is to retain its long-earned reputation for truth-in-packaging.

Jules Witcover is a columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun.

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