Part of the Journo Resources fellowship class of 2022, Marcus Wratten is a London-based freelance journalist, with bylines in MyLondon, The Mirror, SomersetLive, CornwallLive, Happiful Magazine, Attitude Magazine, and The Indiependent. He was the editor-in-chief of the Kingston Courier in 2021, and is currently studying for a journalism MA and NCTJ qualifications.
February 21, 2023 (Updated )
Recently, Eleanor Noyce, a former junior staff writer at DIVA Magazine, received a nine-part Twitter thread from a troll. They had taken issue with an article Noyce had written in the magazine, and decided to air their frustration via the bird app. “It was a really personal attack,” she says. “As a journalist, I think people forget that you’re a human outside of the publications that you write for.”
Noyce is lucky in that this was one of the first instances of abuse she had experienced. For many journalists, Twitter abuse is a daily reality. One study found that 94 per cent of journalists had experienced online abuse at least once, while another found that two-thirds of journalists have experienced abuse on Twitter specifically. The situation is even worse for women; according to Amnesty International, one in every 14 tweets directed at women journalists is abusive.
For the most part, Twitter can feel like a vitriolic place to be.
Does Twitter Actually Reflect The Public?
Despite this, Twitter has become an inescapable part of being a journalist today. Nearly nine in 10 UK journalists have a Twitter account, and social media usage has become an established part of most journalism courses.
It enables us to find sources and stories, build a brand, promote our work, and see which editors are commissioning. “It’s definitely largely responsible for a lot of the work that I have now,” Noyce says.
Eleanor Noyce (L) and Moya Lothian-McLean (R)
Moya Lothian-McLean, a contributing editor at Novara Media, agrees. She has built connections and got her first commission by following editors and other journalists on the app. “Twitter is sadly inextricable from my career as a journalist […] I wish it wasn’t that way,” she says.
Lothian-McLean has experienced a lot of social media negativity during her career — the day before speaking to us, she received a pile-on of abuse from racists and misogynists after appearing on Politics Live — but it is the “echo chamber” the app creates that concerns her the most.
“It’s creating an ever-widening gap between what the general public is thinking and the stories that matter to them, and what people on Twitter are thinking and the stories that matter to them,” she says. This is statistically true: 19 million people in the UK have a Twitter account, active or not, which is roughly just a quarter of the population. Twitter may seem like the be-all and end-all of news for journalists, but this is not the case for most people.
Only 13 percent of young people see Twitter as their primary source of news, which is less than all other social media platforms. For UK adults, television remains the most trusted news source, and social media ranks as the least trusted.
In Lothian-Mclean’s experience, Twitter doesn’t even bring in page views. “When you actually work at these publications […] you realise Twitter traffic is very low,” she says. “It’s almost nothing.”
Evaluating Twitter’s Importance
If Twitter isn’t generating clicks, is it really an essential tool? Stefania Matache, a Romania-based freelance reporter at VICE, doesn’t think so. Twitter isn’t popular in the country, she says, whether among journalists or the general public. She has an account which is all but inactive, and she doesn’t feel that it impacts her work at all.
“I don’t think I’ve ever used it for finding people for stories,” she muses. Instead, Matache uses news apps and TikTok to keep up with news and trends, and Reddit and Facebook to find sources.
“There is a Facebook group for pretty much every community,” she says. Matache has also managed to craft a ‘brand’ as a journalist on Instagram which, while still a platform prone to abuse, perhaps harbours less toxicity than Twitter does.
Stefania Matache (L) and Jaya Sharma (R)
It is this Twitter brand-building that arguably opens the doors to more problems: the larger presence you have, the more likely you are to become a target for trolls when voicing an opinion. Having a large presence and personality on Twitter as a journalist can seem like a goal to strive for, but it’s absolutely not essential, says Jaya Sharma, an interview producer at CNN International. Building her own Twitter brand is not something she’s interested in. “I’m not very big on social media generally,” she says. “I will sometimes post my own work on there, but only every now and again.”
While Sharma doesn’t use the platform to share endless hot takes, she does concede that it is still a critical part of her work. “I would definitely not be able to do my job without it,” she says. Her role involves sourcing expert guests for CNN, often using Twitter to do so. “So rather than posting myself, I’d say I use it more for looking for voices as part of research,” she adds.
It is perhaps fair to conclude that how you use Twitter depends on the type of journalism you’re producing. “If you’re the face of the network,” says Sharma, “then maybe it’s more important to be a brand and this kind of journalistic celebrity. [For] the people that do the research and the behind the scenes, behind the camera — it’s not that essential.”
This is not just the case for those working backstage in broadcast journalism. Natalie, a digital reporter at a national paper, is equally unbothered about using Twitter in a public-facing capacity. “I’ve never really posted a lot on social media. It’s just not in my instinct,” she says. “I use it mostly to help find stories.”
However, Natalie acknowledges that even finding stories can be done without Twitter. When searching for an MP’s response to world news, a Google search will display their most recent tweets. When looking for what a celebrity is up to, a flick through their Instagram will often cover it.
Natalie also mentioned Dataminr, an AI platform that detects when important geographical events, like fires or crashes, are happening, enabling journalists to capture breaking news without a Twitter feed.
Utilising Twitter For Journalism
It seems that how essential Twitter is as a platform depends solely on how you intend to use it.
“As a generalisation, Twitter is more likely to be a tool that people find gets them an in to journalism, if they are from a background that may not necessarily be represented well in journalism, if they don’t have the initial connections in journalism, if they are doing comment writing, that kind of thing,” says Lothian-Mclean.
The app can be a way to carve yourself a space when you’re unable to go down more traditional routes, or to help build a network when you’re building a career from scratch. “It’s been good for finding a community of other young journalists and forming a community in terms of sharing advice,” Noyce says.
There are also ways to milk the platform’s full benefits while limiting the negative side effects. “I don’t have the app on my phone, so I have to log into a browser if I want to use it,” Lothian-McLean says. She also logs out of her account once she’s done, and has a verification process to log back in. This encourages her to use her time on the app wisely. Meanwhile, the Media Lawyer’s Association has recently unveiled detailed guidance on how journalists can take steps to prevent online abuse from happening, and minimise negative impact.
Lothian-Mclean recommends using Twitter as part of a ‘toolkit’ for finding stories and doing research, but urges caution about getting too wrapped up in seeing it as a competition field with other journalists, such as comparing who is verified, who has the most bylines, or who has won awards.
Every year our fellowship supports up to twelve people looking to break into journalism with a paid commission and deadlined career support.
Fellows receive six months of bespoke one-to-one mentoring, work with a professional editor on a paid commission, and at least six tailored career support sessions.
To read more of our fellow’s work click here and sign up for our free newsletter to keep up to date on when applications open. If you’d like to make a donation to the programme, please drop us an email.
“Twitter means very little in the bigger scheme of things, if you want to create longevity and a career that has really good quality work,” she says.
Noyce agrees: “Use it as a positive tool — use it to positively engage with other journalists,” she says. Overall, she does think she could do her job without Twitter, but for the most part, having access to the app makes her life a lot easier.
“I think you kind of do need it in this day and age,” she says on an ending note. “But obviously, 20 years ago, Twitter didn’t exist. So clearly, it is possible to do it without Twitter.”