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

6 min read

As Arkansas gears up for its 89th General Assembly, the state Capitol will serve as a crucible for how information spreads. More and more legislators and journalists are using social media to pump out streams of up-to-date facts and opinions, and it’s both a tool and a challenge for the changing media world.

Of all forms of social media, Twitter is the one making the biggest splash, both for reporters and legislators, since it’s widely accessible and can be updated as fast as a person can type on his or her phone.

(See the 9 most active Arkansas legislators on Twitter by clicking here.)

“A fair number of reporters are using it,” said Max Brantley (@ArkansasBlog), senior editor of the Arkansas Times. “TV reporters are much more aggressive users than print reporters. They’re putting out a lot of quick takes on developing news stories.”

But some print-centric journalists are also making use of the 140-character format. Andrew DeMillo (@ADemillo), Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press’ Little Rock bureau, for example, is highly active on Twitter.

“The way I use Twitter is I view it as a tool for reporting,” he said. “It’s also for letting people know about my reporting. But I try to be really careful that it’s not viewed as my only tool. It’s a great tool to have, but it doesn’t substitute interviewing people or going to meetings or basic stuff like picking up the phone and making FOI requests. It’s a good way to know what’s going on, to keep track of things without cloning yourself.”

Following politicians’ Twitter feeds also helps DeMillo to be in many places at once.

“It’s a lot easier now to know what’s going on in committee rooms if you’re not there,” he said. “If you go to any committee room during a session, in the House or the Senate, they’re tweeting things going on in there a lot of times as fast as or sometimes faster than what you’re seeing from reporters there.”

Gabe Holmstrom (@Gabe_Holmstrom), the incoming House chief of staff, is one of those tweeters. He was an early adopter of the media platform.

“I remember reading an article in 2008 that this was going to be the next big thing,” he said. “I wanted to learn about it, and so that’s when I joined up and started participating.”

Holmstrom’s philosophy is to put out information that voters wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else. He said more information is always a good thing.

“One of the big changes you saw going back to the 1992 presidential campaign was what we referred to as the 24-hour news cycle with cable television,” he said. “The length of the news cycle has significantly shrunk. The news that happens today, with people on Twitter and following blogs, if people want to be actively engaged, they can see the news … as it happens as opposed to having to wait for the evening news or the newspaper the next day.”

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.

“I would say [Twitter] is a new avenue, but I don’t think it does anything to diminish the old one,” Burris added.

Holmstrom said this year’s legislative session will be indicative of how far social media have extended their reach.

“This upcoming session is going to be very key as regards social media,” he said, noting that Rep. Davy Carter (@DavyCarter), R-Cabot, will be the first Arkansas house speaker to be an active Twitter user. “I think it will be interesting to see how he utilizes that communication tool in this session.”

Nelson said social media have made the Legislature more accessible, but actually exacerbate the need for good journalism. “The rule now becomes … not to provide us with a recap the next day of the breaking news … but to provide some context, some sense of history, some sense of place of what’s going on, and I think that becomes more important than ever,” he said. “In a world of 140-character tweets, I think the need for the 50-inch analysis has now become even more important.”

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