Karen Tumulty, a political correspondent for the Washington Post for almost three years, uses social media to showcase her work and the work of others. Before her position at the Post, she worked at TIME Magazine for 14 years and for 13 at the LA Times.
In an article for the Post, she wrote “…the fact that the president is now incorporating hashtags into his speeches shows how Twitter is redefining the means by which politicians shape, distribute and refine their messages. Campaigning in 140 characters or less provides almost instant feedback, which campaigns use to figure out what is working and what isn’t, even before it hits the blogs, much less the traditional media outlet.”
Below, she reveals her thoughts about how social media is redefining journalism today.
How has journalism changed since you started working?
How hasn’t it? One thing is that when I started you were a newspaper reporter, but now everybody has to do everything. If you write stories for a magazine or newspaper, you’re also going to be tweeting about them and going on television for the story.
Does the Post require you to use social media? Do they supply you with any technology to make use of it?
They do not, but they encourage it. Time started a blog called “Swampland” in 2007. I was really reluctant to do it, but I really found that I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I was going to and I really loved interacting with commenters in the comment section. And Twitter kind of gives me an opportunity to do the same thing. The more I have gotten used to Twitter the more I liked it. And now I’m comfortably tweeting and retweeting and I have pretty close to 40,000 followers.
How do you make use of social media?
I have found that Twitter is also a good way to find out news. It’s becoming the first way that I hear things. I have tweeted or re-tweeted twelve posts today, so far. If I think that either my work or my one of my colleagues’ work is interesting and ought to get more attention, I will tweet out a link to it, if I find something interesting that I am reading, I tweet out a link to that, and if I think I have an observation about something, I will tweet that out as well, or a response to somebody else. You can use it in all kinds of ways. Probably even more importantly, I watch it all day long to see what other people are talking about.
How do you decide who to follow?
I follow people who are interesting and people who don’t waste my time.
Opinion in social media – is it appropriate as a journalist to voice opinions via social media?
I think it is fine to be provocative, but I think for somebody who has a job like mine – I’m not a columnist, I don’t write opinions – I don’t believe I should write anything on Twitter that I would not write in a different form for the newspaper. I think it is fine to be provocative and I think it is fine to be sharp and pointed in my observations. But what’s important is that someone should not be able to take anything I’m writing and say ‘Oh, she’s a liberal’ or ‘Oh, she’s a conservative.’ I think it’s fine for me to be critical or praise somebody, but it can’t be seen as having an ideological slant behind it.
What are the advantages of social media?
One is that it gives your work a lot of visibility among people who might not otherwise see it. When I send out a link to my stories, very often people who don’t get the Washington Post or don’t necessarily sign onto our website see it– And if people start talking about it, people read what I do. And you also get feedback on what you do. Sometimes it’s really smart; someone will say ‘Oh, you made a good point here but you forgot that,’ or ‘Have you thought of it this way,’ or ‘You’re full of it,’ which is good to hear. When I got into this business you would hear back from readers usually with letters to the editor. That might be a week after you heard the story or a week after it appeared in print and at that point it was almost irrelevant, compared to the instant feedback you get now.
Because it is so instant, people have gotten in trouble for not thinking through what they are going to say or not recognizing that something they are saying is just stupid. Stupidity gets out there pretty quickly. Trying to think of all the things people have apologized for on Twitter is almost too much to count.
How has social media and the growing use of the internet affected journalism?
For one thing, it is coming at a time when newspapers are laying people off and shrinking. It is really straining our resources, because you have a lot more people are called upon to do a lot more. The good part is that you get feedback more quickly than you ever did before and you also have a chance to reach people who wouldn’t necessarily have read your work before.
Do you ever get stressed when handling all of these responsibilities as a journalist?
I do, and I also learned that you have to thicken your skin a bit. A lot of criticism is very good and you should pay attention to it, but a lot of people out there are just kind of nutty.
How do you think journalism will be affected by the growing use of social media in the future?
I don’t know. I mean, that is just the truth. We are all trying to figure this out. How are we going to make money with this, print is dying. We haven’t come up with a way to use electronic media as profitably as print media was.
Do you think that as print starts dying off, credibility will as well?
People are going to put more responsibility on themselves to understand who it is they’re reading and what the agendas are.
What is an interesting story that you have covered during your time as a journalist that really stands out?
The most interesting story I have done lately, I did it around a man named Earl Smith. I tracked down a man who had a sort of chance encounter with President Obama in the 2008 campaign on an elevator and how he really affected Obama and never really knew it. And that was really fun because as I was reporting my story, he ended up getting invited to the inauguration and the Today Show did a big piece on him and in the end he got invited to the White House the day after the inauguration to have a meeting with President Obama who hadn’t seen him since the encounter in the elevator and in fact, had never even learned his name.
So, every now and then you get to write a story that nobody has ever done and it’s really going to have an impact on somebody’s life and that makes you feel really good.