Arkansas Lawmakers, Journalists Learn the Modern Art of Governing by Tweet

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Jan. 7, 2013 12:00 am  

Rep. John Burris (@John_Burris), R-Harrison, started using Twitter in 2010. He said he prefers to keep his updates to once- or twice-a-day summaries. Aside from politicians occasionally saying things they may later regret, Burris said, the adoption of Twitter is a good development. “It’s an instant microphone to the world,” he said.

Brantley said the spread of social media is probably a positive change for the voter base. “It reveals the thinking of legislators and other public officials a lot more frequently than ... in the past,” he said. “Posts on Facebook get turned into news stories. Some people think more rationally; some are more reactive; some are more careful. We get an unedited view of public officials through these devices. It’s a lazy man’s way of getting into the minds of legislators without going through a phone book.

“Furthermore, a lot of them engage in dialogue on Twitter and Facebook. Any number of people can post questions on Twitter and get answers. There are limitations in form, obviously, but it’s all about getting more information. Every single one of those things, whether live-streaming, television, YouTube, Facebook — each is another outlet for information.”

“Frankly, I wonder how we ever got things done in [the past],” said Rex Nelson (@RexNelson), a former political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Then I look back, I see that maybe it was a better way of covering government and politics. Then it was the shoe-leather method of reporting: You were actually at the meetings; you were chasing people down, running down halls, reaching out. You were on the phone then, and I think a lot of times now we go to the easy email exchanges. I know I do.”

The Gatekeepers

A ramification of the proliferation of social media is a dampening of traditional news sources: Information will never again stop at journalists before reaching the public.

“We’re in the midst of this great debate of what’s going to happen with newspapers and conventional media,” Brantley said. “That’s sort of a separate issue, but this is illustrative of the fact that information is like water. It finds ways to get out.”

The old system, Brantley said, had “gatekeepers” of information: reporters and editors. Reporters had the news, and editors decided what information was news and what wasn’t.

“All things ended up funneling into a small pipe that was already small to begin with,” he said. “News couldn’t appear more than once a day, and I think there was a certain tyranny in that.”

That type of clout is gone, Brantley said. “Literally in an hour’s time, you can change the dimension of how a story develops before a conventional reporter puts words on a sheet of paper.”

DeMillo said the journalist’s role hasn’t disappeared, though. “There’s always a need for more reporting, somebody sifting through what they’re saying, sifting through clutter,” DeMillo said. “I don’t think readers want to just have what politicians are saying directly from Twitter. They want a context of what’s happening. Also, you have to remember there are a lot of important people that we need to talk to that don’t have a Twitter account.”

Holmstrom, too, said journalists need to be present. “Journalists’ goal is to provide unbiased viewpoints in news,” he said.



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