Twitter Time: Responsible Writing in Today’s Media Landscape

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Criticism of Twitter and its effects on the media ecosystem abounds. In a podcast published Thursday, Vox co-founder Ezra Klein points to Twitter and cable news’ corrosion of journalism, noting that these media exacerbate the “addiction to information” that inspires many journalists to pick up a pen in the first place. Prominent journalists such as the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman have left the platform altogether or for brief periods before once more succumbing to its call. In a July column explaining her decision to quit Twitter, Haberman decried the platform’s “viciousness, toxic partisan anger, intellectual dishonesty, motive-questioning, and sexism.”

The typical cornerstone of an argument against Twitter is opposition to its propagation of thoughtlessness, outrage, and toxicity—provocation over profundity, entertainment over education. While Twitter’s latest tweak to content delivery provides the option between top tweets and a real-time feed, the platform’s algorithms, like those on Facebook, still favor what has come to be known as outrage culture. The major cable news networks, most of all Fox News but also CNN and MSNBC, are no exception to this rule. Outrageous content captures attention, and for media organizations financed by advertising, attention boosts the bottom line.

In the spirit of critiquing the contemporary media ecosystem’s worst tendencies, I want to take the time not to lambast media power players but to consider what a more responsible approach to journalism might look like. More fundamentally, even, what is responsibility? What does it have to do with writing or, to invoke the parlance of the day, content production on TV, on the Internet, in print media and books? How do these different media, which have their own times of operation and modes of distribution, undermine the demand to write and produce content responsibly?

When articulating the politics and ethics of writing, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida described responsibility as thorough consideration of both the complexities of the subject matter at hand and the way what we write will be distributed and received. This is why, in Derrida’s view and especially in the Internet-based media landscape, writing in an entirely just or responsible manner is impossible. Pure responsibility is an unreachable goal. Responsible writing, always but especially in the time of Twitter, exerts such a tremendous demand on the writer because we can never be sure precisely where our writing will end up or how it will be read and repurposed. We cannot write in a way that will prevent all misunderstandings, appropriations, or disagreeable interpretations.

This understanding of responsibility and responsible writing, which I would like to inherit from Derrida, as he might have said, and propose as a model for today’s journalists is not a cause for despair. The impossibility of perfect responsibility does not mean all journalism is equally irresponsible. On the contrary, defining the ethics of writing and recognizing the challenge of responsibility enjoins us to be clearer, more attentive to detail, and more careful in crafting our arguments. The most irresponsible writing is the most hasty, least rigorous in its assessments of a situation’s complexities, and least dogged in its pursuit of all pertinent facts.

If criticism of Twitter and the news media is ubiquitous, it is largely because content in both arenas so often fails to rise to the challenge of responsibility. It aims to produce outrage and push partisan narratives without interrogating its assumptions and all the facts in play. It lacks thought at a time when the endless and rapid reproduction of content in digital space demands we be more thoughtful than ever because we never know where and in how many places our words will reappear.

Suppose we take this concept of responsibility and consider it in the context of Twitter. Pundits’ favorite platform demands its writers reduce their thoughts to 280 characters, and the average tweet was a mere 33 as of 2018. The upshot is an ecosystem in which producing responsible content is a Sisyphean task. Combine the character limit with the algorithm’s taste for indignation, and the likelihood that Twitter content will oversimplify and prioritize provocation becomes overwhelming.

To make matters worse, there is no escaping Twitter time. Even if journalists manage to stay away from the bright blue app or turn off the cable news networks in favor of print journalism, which is by no coincidence both slower in its production and overall less sensational than its televised counterpart, the entire news media is already contaminated by flows of information that don’t exclude either the digital or analog. This fact is all the more obvious at a time when the world’s most powerful country receives executive policy directives on Twitter. The speed and carelessness of Jack Dorsey’s creation affects all of us who read and write the news. The clock can never be turned back; misinformation cannot be quarantined.

In the face of an Internet dirtied by disinformation and the rancor amplified by computer programs, our responsibility as writers is neither to produce more hot takes on that very situation, nor to join in on the cynicism of a game driven by the search for advertising dollars. It is first of all to define responsibility, to fight over how we will live up to it in our newsrooms, and to aspire to uphold it with every article of content we produce. We will fail to be perfectly responsible. But by recognizing that failure and moving ever closer toward success, we will do our readers a sorely needed service.

Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Joe is an ad/martech veteran who has covered the space since 2015. You can contact him at [email protected]