I’ve never really thought of myself as a journalist. Sure, I write a column for an online magazine, and even get paid for it. But as a columnist, my job is a little different from that of a reporter. I have a distinct point of view—I promote research blogging—which is the kind of thing reporters try to avoid. That said, I also have been a critic of those who want to draw sharp lines between “journalists” and “bloggers,” and I’d add “columnists” to that list too, so I probably ought to resign myself to the fact that, for better or worse, I am a journalist.
But sometimes I take off my journalist hat and just chat with people. Sometimes I write completely non-journalistic blog posts about my travels. Sometimes I rant on Twitter (that one lost me a couple dozen followers).
And sometimes I express my amazement at an inane court ruling: “Yikes! Judge halts stem cell research http://is.gd/eAPR4″. This last statement, to my surprise, has given rise to a bit of controversy online. You can read about it here. Drugmonkey seems to feel that the statement is misleading because it could be read as meaning that the judge has halted all stem cell research (according to the article I linked, the ruling is unclear and may roll back all federally-funded research involving any human stem cells, or it may have a more limited impact).
While I agree that the statement could be misread (I suggested “Yikes! Judge halts a whole mess of stem cell research” as a revision), I do wonder if it’s reasonable to hold journalists’ tweets to the same standards we hold their edited articles and headlines to. A blog post or news article can be corrected, but a tweet quickly takes on a life of its own. It can be retweeted, and even if it’s deleted, it remains on people’s mobile devices and third-party Twitter apps. Maybe this means we should have *higher* standards for tweets.
On the other hand, few people see tweets as the definitive word on something. Unless they come directly from the source (e.g. Lady Gaga tweeting that she’s carousing in Vegas), we don’t take tweets as truth. More typically, tweets point to something else to gain authority — Like a New York Times article about a court decision.
I don’t think I’d enjoy using Twitter as much if all journalists and scientists were as careful in crafting their tweets as they are when they write formal publications. And I don’t think I’m alone. Twitter gets its power from its conversational nature. If everyone on Twitter had to be constantly on guard to avoid statements that might be misunderstood, then few people would think it was worth the bother.