Why does the media care what’s trending on Twitter?

While I was watching TV news coverage of the Moncton nightmare, I often heard the reporters talking, in terms of near awe, that #Moncton or #prayforMoncton was trending on Twitter.

This made me think, “Who cares?” Apparently, the increasingly understaffed and/or lazy news media thinks this is a big deal.

The news gathering organizations, particularly TV, have become obsessed with Twitter, or what the Twitterverse is thinking.

Twitter is the 21st century equivalent of what we old timers from the newspaper industry (remember newspapers?) used to call streeters. A streeter requires a reporter to go out on the street and ask random, usually ill-informed strangers a question regarding the issue of the day. TV still does this a lot, usually just as a way to get faces on TV in the hopes someone will watch. Two or (if the reporter is really ambitious) three 10-second interviews with people who know little or nothing about the issue at hand then allows the reporter to throw in either “But there seems to be little support for the (fill in issue),” or “The public seems to be behind the (fill in issue)”, depending on how the two or three people reacted. It’s lazy and pointless journalism, but, as the old news adage goes, names make news.

Streeters still exist, but they are being replaced by updates on what is ‘trending’ on Twitter. If a local or Canadian event is trending on Twitter, as the Moncton tragedy inevitably was, this is considered ‘news’. Local TV news people almost wet themselves with excitement if anything with Edmonton’s hideous Twitter shorthand label #yeg is trending. Why? All that is proves is that people are talking about the event or person or whatever. Exactly how many Tweets have to be sent out to result in a trend is unknown to me. I’ve tried reading explanations about how Twitter calculates trending topics, but as soon as I ran across the word ‘algorithm’, I stopped reading.

The fact that people on Twitter are talking about something is no more newsworthy than what people are talking about to each other over their backyard fences. Of course a major news story will trend. Of course a story about a major celebrity will trend. This isn’t news. I realize, of course, that Twitter can contain real news. As in any event like the Moncton tragedy, there will be actual eyewitnesses to the event who will take to Twitter. This can be valuable information. But that’s a needle in a haystack. The vast majority of Twitter comments on anything are at best banal, at worst ill informed. (Oh, and my the way, can we PLEASE put a moratorium on the expression ‘thoughts and prayers’? It has become so overused that it has lost all meaning, if indeed it ever had any meaning.)

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Twitter is a bad thing. I’m on Twitter, and have been for five years. I get lots of really interesting and sometimes important information from it; I look at Twitter as my own personal newswire. And sometimes, I like to share interesting things I’ve found online, and I have been known to make pithy/stupid comments from time to time.

But sorry, news media types: what is trending on Twitter is no more newsworthy than what a bunch of old guys at Tim Hortons talk about over coffee.


By Maurice Tougas

Maurice Tougas is a lifelong Albertan, award-winning writer and reporter, and a former MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark.


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