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Twitter and the Ethic of Transparency

During my field research in Albany, Twitter captivated the press corps and incited debates about journalistic professionalism. The legislative debate about and passage of same-sex marriage (SSM) law in late June 2011 was a particularly incisive event in this context. More than just the momentary national attention to tweets from the Albany state house, reporters felt that their twitterverse suddenly resembled an idealized space of instantaneous public discussion rather than its usual existence of an echo chamber.

The state editor of the TU, Casey Seiler, titled his column after the law passed “A Twitter convert’s testament.” Describing himself as a late converter and initial skeptic of Twitter, he wrote that his awakening occurred during the SSM debate, when he realized what Twitter was or could be, both a “deeply stocked newsstand” and “a communal notebook that’s open to the public” (Seiler 2011). Not only that, but a platform to exert accountability (to a modest extent) in that “an errant quote from a politician or advocate is posted and then handed around to thousands of followers in little more time than it takes to be typed” (ibid.).

I have argued elsewhere (Revers 2014) that the role LCA journalists assumed on Twitter around that time, engaging in various performances of transparency, was new and emblematic for changes in US journalistic professionalism. This shift occurred in the context of nascent digital cultural values of openness, interactivity and participation, which Karlsson (2010) jointly discussed as participatory transparency, and a new digital formation of mediated communication in the early 2000s, including smartphones and their video recording and app-extension capabilities, blogs and other social networks.

Besides fulfilling very similar legacy news duties as their German counterparts, blogging and tweeting LCA journalists understood their professional role in part as providers of original and instantly shared content. The journalist herself stepped out of the twilight of authoritative distance into the limelight of social media publicity, inventing a personality (or a “personal brand” in media corporate speak) on the way, who more openly shared assessments on issues and situations as well as glimpses into her personal life.

This shift did not occur uninhibitedly, as the ethic of transparency clashed with the established professional logic of control over the jurisdiction of news making (Lewis 2012). Contention in the period of transition divided LCA reporters into three groups: innovators who adopted Twitter immediately and wholeheartedly; a minority of traditionalists who rejected new forms of engagements entirely up to a certain point; and skeptics who adopted Twitter hesitantly (sometimes involuntarily) but were ideologically closer to traditionalists. One skeptic, whom I expected to be one of the last to join Twitter if ever (he was told by his editors), told me about his experience:

You have to embrace some of these things if you want to survive. ... You can be kind of funny and sarcastic on Twitter; no one is editing you, which is kind of fun. You can definitely be more personal on Twitter and if you’re not you gonna come off kind of buttoned-down, you know, so I think you have to [be more personal]. (Interview, LCA reporter, February 27, 2012)

Traditionalists denoted the flow of unfiltered (by the critical eyes of editors) information through blogs and Twitter as “stenography,” “news candy” and “performative information.” They were particularly averse to the erosion of the metaphorical wall between opinion and news. As one of them said: “[The wall] is crumbling particularly because of blogging. Some bloggers have a style of being snarky or witty or funny or inserting themselves into the blog post. You automatically get some opinion, some adjectives, and a framing of the blog post” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 5, 2011).

Even though the legacy news generated by their tweeting colleagues mostly conformed to their standards, traditionalists opposed the overall diversification of professionalism on different platforms. One of them argued: “I see a lot of times people do cross the line. And it’s like, on the next day they are reporting on the same thing in a supposed hands- off [style in the paper] ... that to me is mind-boggling” (Interview, LCA reporter, February 28, 2012). Traditionalists held an essentialist view of professionalism, which suggested that deviation from conventional professional norms on one platform undermined these norms altogether. Innovators, representing about half of the LCA, believed in the value of diversifying professionalism, sharing different layers of their professional personas and providing different levels of analysis of state politics on various media platforms.

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