OLD Media Moves

Ten Twitter ‘tells’: Like browsing through a journalist’s contacts file

October 3, 2012

Posted by DeanRotbart

In my (long ago) days as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, I used to keep a monster steel rotary contact file next to my telephone.

It was my lifeblood.  In it were contained the names and contact information for the vast majority of my sources.  Often, on my source cards, I also noted spouses and kids’ names; perhaps a birth date or anniversary; even a favorite restaurant or bar where my contacts liked to hang out.

I kept personal contact cards in my rotary file as well. Family. Friends. Restaurants (takeout and especially delivery numbers).

No one – and I mean no one – got to peek into my contact file.  For truth, if some public relations or corporate communications executive had been able to study it, s/he would have learned more about me and who had my ear than I would ever be willing to publicly disclose.

And then came Twitter.

While communications executives already follow legions of journalists who have Twitter accounts, the vast majority of journalists simply use the social networking service as a headline service for stories that they or their colleagues have reported.

My NewsBios research colleagues and I do pay attention to what the journalists we track post on Twitter.  It is a convenient one-stop method of knowing who is reporting what.  And some journalists, especially the younger ones, feel at liberty to share their personal lives, opinions and sense of humor with their followers.  That’s a nice bonus when we’re hunting for insights that wouldn’t otherwise surface in their news stories or in their official bios.

But for me and my NewsBios team, who aim to ascertain the rarely seen influences that impact how a journalist reports and how an individual journalist’s personal experiences and biases integrate into their professional lives, nothing beats a thorough analysis of whom the journalists follow on Twitter.

Granted, this is more art than science.  For any single given journalist, reading too much into whom they are tracking on Twitter can be misleading.

But when you look at trends across dozens, even hundreds of journalists – as we do monthly – what emerges is a reasonably accurate picture of the private side of these public reporters, editors and anchors.  Kind of like having the opportunity to browse through a journalist’s contacts file.

Here are the 10 most common personal “tells” we spot when scrutinizing who it is that journalists follow on Twitter:

  1.  Corporate executives at the companies the journalist covers, as well as the analysts, trade groups and university professors who opine on these companies.  Tell: These may not be the journalist’s absolute closest contacts, but they’re highly likely to be among the reporter’s best sources. [If your executives aren’t included here, why not?]
  2. A journalist who tracks some of his/her news competitors – same beat, but not all of his/her competitors.  Tell: These are the rival reporters who the journalist worries about being scooped by the most.  If you place a story with one of these “other” reporters, this journalist will surely take note of it.
  3.  A journalist who follows account executives at public relations firms.  Two Tells: 1.) The journalist values PR professionals more than most of his/her peers, some of who are outright hostile to the PR industry.  2.) The specific PR executives who the journalist follows have a higher placement “batting average” with the journalist than do others. [Again, if your agency isn’t listed here, why not?]
  4. A journalist who selectively follows the accounts of other reporters and editors at the same news organization.  Tell: These follows are members of the journalist’s inner circle.  The journalist either reports to these Twitter account holders, works right alongside them, or has become personal friends with them.  These account holders have disproportionate influence with this journalist.
  5. Twitter account members with the same family name.  Tell: Not only have you identified a spouse, sibling, parent or child, you’ve found one that the journalist is still close to.  Examine these people’s Twitter accounts for additional clues into the journalist’s background and non-newsroom influences.
  6. A journalist, who is not a political reporter, who follows the campaign accounts of either President Obama or Mitt Romney, but not both.  Tell: The journalist’s candidate-of-choice this November.
  7. A journalist who follows: Huffington Post, MSNBC, Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman and/or Ed Schultz, but none of the Twitter accounts listed in No. 8 (next).  Tell: Leans to the political left.
  8.  A journalist who follows: Fox News, The Drudge Report, Breitbart.com, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michele Malkin and/or James Taranto, but none of the Twitter accounts listed in No. 7 (above).  Tell: Leans to the political right.
  9. Inexplicable Twitter account holders, especially nonprofit groups that serve communities of those who have chronic illnesses or advocate on behalf of lesser-known causes. Tell: Chances are good that the journalist or a close family member has been touched by this illness or has ties to the cause.
  10. Local restaurants, bars, art galleries, retail outlets and salons.  Tell: Take a close look at the journalist’s Twitter photo.  You’re likely to spot the journalist on a recurring basis at these venues, located close either to where the journalist works or lives.

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