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Hejaze: Twitter supplements journalism but isn’t journalism itself

Rhytha Zahid Hejaze, Columnist

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Andy Carvin (Communication ’93, ’94), a former NPR digital media strategist, relentlessly tweeted on the Arab Spring, starting in February 2011. He once sent out 1,400 tweets for 20 hours straight on his Twitter account, @acarvin.

Carvin’s sources were Twitter accounts of people supposedly witnessing everything on the ground in the Middle East as he sat back in his chair in a cafe or took the Metro back home. He used YouTube, Facebook and the Internet to complement his sources — posting links to videos from Libyan rebels and photos of protests in Bahrain.

“I see it as another flavor of journalism,” Carvin said to The Washington Post about his incessant tweets. “So I guess I’m another flavor of journalist.”

Carvin’s eagerness to call himself a journalist manifests a desire within him to win his work some validity, as though journalists hold some form of superiority over him. His work supplements journalism but cannot be called journalism itself, and I don’t say that as an arrogant budding journalist.

Blogging is called blogging for a reason, because it’s different from journalism. Likewise, Carvin could be called a news gatherer or a news tweeter, but not a professional journalist. That is not to dismiss the work he has done, but only to distinguish the two practices. Building an archive of events in Libya, for instance, by tweeting and retweeting material from one’s followers does not qualify as witnessing the way a reporter on the ground would witness, which is what Carvin claimed he did for two years and his book’s title, “Distant Witness,” implied.

“It’s not positioned as the definitive sort of piece that you might hear on NPR. It’s a different form,” Kinsey Wilson, the head of NPR’s Digital Media division, said to The Washington Post.

Although the kind of work produced when a reporter actually resides in a certain place is much more insightful and comprehensive, Carvin’s crowdsourcing can allow a journalist to step back from a conflict and look at the bigger picture. Sometimes when reporters are on the ground, they cannot fully comprehend what is going on, because they can only see what is right in front of them.

“It’s a form of situational awareness, something I noticed in late June when I was in Tahrir Square in Cairo and hundreds of people were injured when the police attacked,” Carvin said to The Guardian. “I could only tell what was going on immediately in front of me. I could smell it, see it, feel it, hear it, but I didn’t know what was truly going on, whereas when I was using social media I felt I had a better sense of what was happening on the ground.”

A lot of Carvin’s sources, however, used pseudonyms. “The reality is that many of my sources would not be alive today if they weren’t working under pseudonyms. They are working under difficult circumstances to get information out,” Carvin said to The Guardian.

Though the use of pseudonyms is understandable, it raises the question of the reliability of these sources. These sources could very well have agendas and might be fabricating information to misinform the public.

Journalism is the “first rough draft of history,” as Alan Barth said in the 1940s. It’s an art of verification and a journalist cannot rely on a hunch.

Carvin, however, assumed the Twitter accounts @alitweel@abukhit and @flyingbirdies were authentic because “Even with this limited information, there was something about the tone of their tweets… that rang authentic.”

Tone of their tweets? That’s insightful. Just because something sounds right, doesn’t make it right.

At times, Carvin seemed ill-equipped with the Muslim culture. When a toddler was brought to the hospital, Carvin thought he was being readied for surgery when in reality, he was being washed for burial. Carvin, being Carvin, tweeted the video saying “Video of a wounded child being treated…”

Carvin’s readiness to believe whatever he saw online was a problem.

Mohammed Nabbous, or Mo, a Libyan citizen journalist, was one of Carvin’s sources. When he died, Carvin assumed Mo’s death was the reason behind NATO’s intervention.

“He (Mo) didn’t live long enough to find out that he succeeded in helping save Benghazi,” Carvin wrote in his book, “Distant Witness.”

We don’t know how influential Mo was and whether his death really was the cause of NATO’s intervention, but Carvin, being a wide-eyed “journalist,” closed the case by tweeting, “The saddest part is that French planes are over Benghazi now. Mo didn’t live long enough to see his cries of help being answered.”

If Carvin had taken my “Introduction to Statistics for Journalism Students” course with Prof. Justin Martin, he would’ve known the difference between correlation and causation.

Journalist Jeff Jarvis asserted that, like bloggers, journalists make mistakes all the time but are reluctant to admit this because they are taught to be “perfect.”

Although I agree that news organizations and journalists err, journalists have editors working by their sides that check and double-check news pieces before publishing them. The checking and the double-checking reduce chances of error significantly.

Carvin did not sit down at his desk and churn out news pieces that were edited by three editors or more at a time, as a news piece by The New York Times would be. He simply gave out information to his audience just as he received it in its crudest form. He even tweeted information whose sources weren’t verified — asking skeptical questions in his tweets like “Source?” or “Evidence?” He told people what he did not know and asked his followers to help him out — not churning out a final news piece but sharing with his followers the process of collecting new information.

“I receive information from all sorts of people, try to keep up with it and mix those beats in a way that’s useful to people,” Carvin said to The Guardian. “You can’t necessarily dance to it, but hopefully you can learn from it.”

Rhytha Zahid Hejaze is a sophomore studying journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar. She can be reached at ridahejaze2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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