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Twitter Can't Cure Cancer! But the Right Pro-Am Mix is the Future of Journalism

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All Twitter needed this last week was for Ashton Kutcher to be named the compromise president of Iran. Then the perfect circle of social networking, information gathering, and real-world events would have been balled up tighter than a Microsoft intellectual property-rights case.

But in actual life, the news gathering nexus of old and new has been stumbling and lost down alleyways of wrong questions and masturbatory debates among journalists and other media specialists.

CNN, the original cable news outlet, had been both viciously caned by Twitheads via a Twitter scarlet hashtag for not doing its job, then partially redeemed by endlessly featuring Tweets from Iran like a hopped-up carnival barker at a sideshow, terrified that the bearded lady would end up being more popular than the main tent elephants. The power of Twitter manifested.

But, as Fredricka Whitfield noted Sunday on CNN, "we're getting a lot of information from social networking. At the same time, we're working very hard with our specialists to make sure we verify this information." OK, that's reasonable.

What followed was a specialist, Dubai bureau chief Samson Desta, giving his own eyewitness account of very limited geography street action in Tehran. Which was as separate from verifying the larger Iranian Twitter stream as two siblings meeting for the first time 50 years after their birth; there's a connection, but it ain't profound.

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, parachuting into Tehran for the first time to a slightly warmer welcome that he got on "The Daily Show," wrote lots of front page stories but hardly mentioned the social networking phenomenon. On "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" Sunday, Mr. Keller went beyond his own observations. "I'm no expert on Iranian politics," he sad, "but..." and went on to offer his opinion, presumably unscathed by a single tweet. His paper did write a lot about the otherworldly phenomenon of Twitter, but still at arms' length as though it were a strange insect.

The is/isn't discussions aren't useless, but in deifying or demonizing Twitter, they usually miss an opportunity to find the right recipe where all this new stuff and more traditional skills can interact to everyone's benefit (unless you've just stolen an election.)

Look, Twitter can't cure cancer. But it's certainly part of the genetic makeup of a future vaccine to combat the transitional disease affecting professional journalism.

Like any chemical/medical mystery though, it needs some magical combination to unlock the door.

HuffPo's Nico Pitney, live-blogging time line with feeds from Twitter, YouTube, AP, the wires, Web sites, etc., making clear the sourcing in each case, comes close. It's not perfect, but it's more than just show-off aggregation or the kind of gawking and pointing at the new kid that's happened with Twitter in much of more traditional media.

And media consultant/journalist Jeff Jarvis actually cautioned within the body of a Twitter-Iran string that some information had not been confirmed. Jeff, that's a service to an emerging new world reporting order equal to several lectures at CUNY.

Let's first concede that the underlying Iran dynamic isn't new. In China after Tiananmen Square and in the Philippines when I covered the slow-motion fall of Ferdinand Marcos over several years, the Twitter and YouTube precursors were FAXes and smuggled western video cassettes of non-censored news stories from the West. I met more new friends (and enemies) in the outlying jungles of Southern Mindanao holding a wrinkled photocopy of one of my stories than I had San Francisco readers of those same pieces at the old Examiner.

But Twitter, along with a variety of other social media, certainly provides new equipment for tapping into action, scene, and emotion that we ought to be incorporating with journalism's "experts" rather than immunizing ourselves by pointing out what's right or wrong about these vastly expanded sources.

This is how it's been with the media and Twitter over the Iranian upheaval:

  • New vs. old battles. See! say the champions of broad digital news collection, you dinosaurs are way too slow and narrow. We're fast and furious and a big fire hose of personal experience. No, no! demurs MSM like CNN. We're evolving. See, we're using Twitter, endlessly on big, fancy new touch screens. We even have whole staffers dedicated to monitoring the stuff. But that's mostly just a lot of pointing, not clicking.
  • Voracious debates on almost every forum about the strengths vs. drawbacks of Twitter as a valuable news tool, now that we can't really ignore it. Pro: It's immediate, it's from the source, it evades censorship, and it gives a dramatic and rolling view of motion and emotion. Con: It's also hard to verify, easily accessible to manipulation and disinformation, only gets at emotion and not facts, and reflects disproportionately small number of Iranians, most of whom would have been in the streets -- or not -- without it.

Is Twitter the new and better AP, the future of crowd-sourced news gathering? Wrong question. Is it a flawed electronic bulletin board only momentarily diverted from self-absorbed, shorthand musings into a component of the Iranian counter-revolution? Also wrong question.

The right question is: what are the correct ingredients in addition to Twitter and YouTube, and what is the right recipe for journalists to paint a better picture, give voice to the most number of (real) people affected and vastly expand our old school capabilities as messengers?

I'm the last one to figure that out. But all these tech geniuses with their armies of engineers and array of creative start-ups -- most of them claiming the higher ground desire to do social good -- ought to be able to huddle with those of us who have on-the-ground experience vetting information and weaving the narrative to come up with the real answer.

The whole story depends on it.