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Podcast: Reporters Debate: To Feed the Twitter Trolls, or Not?

ProPublica's Lois Beckett, who limits her personal tweets to discussions of The New York Times Style Section, Brooklyn, and kale. (Lars Klove for ProPublica)

To be a reporter in 2015, you all but have to be on Twitter. And that means wrestling with the daily question of just how much of yourself goes into a very public persona.

It’s hard to imagine finding four reporters with more divergent styles on that front than ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Lois Beckett and Charles Ornstein, who tackle the ups and downs of Twitter in today’s podcast.

Hannah-Jones, who presents a “tamped-down version” of her personality on Twitter, says she tries, sometimes unsuccessfully, not to let people get to her: “I always get people who say crazy things about black people,” she says, “and then I argue back with them – and then I wish that I hadn’t.”

“You feed the trolls,” Eisinger says. “My rule is, never respond to anybody with fewer Twitter followers than me, and try to get into a fight with people with more Twitter followers than me.”

Beckett – who limits her personal tweets to discussions of The New York Times Style Section, Brooklyn, and kale – says the power of Twitter is the real-time discussion of unfolding stories. For example, tweets from the racially charged protests in Ferguson, Mo., last summer were “a lot more powerful than the daily news story that happened later,” she says.

Hannah-Jones agrees, saying Twitter’s had a “democratizing effect” on reporting. “When you looked at Ferguson, so many people who were tweeting were not journalists – they were citizens who were on the ground, who were driving the coverage.”

Ornstein – whom Eisinger calls “a paragon of civilized tweeting” – says the key is timing. “I definitely think that the fads are, you know, sort of by the minutes instead of even by the hours or by the days,” he says. “You have things like ‘the dress,’ right, which over the course of 12 hours got tens of millions of page views – I would like for that to be one of my stories – but you also have things like 'Black Lives Matter,' which go over several days and weeks.”

But unlike Ornstein – a self-described “health nerd” who needs little self-editing – Eisinger says he’s wary of a medium where “everything goes to 11 instantly, and then seems to dissipate.” He also sees younger journalists, in particular, as more focused than ever on building a brand.

“The value of being a somewhat anonymous reporter whose work speaks for herself seems to be lower,” he says. “I mean, my 28-year-old opinions were, believe it or not, even more obnoxious. So thank God Twitter didn’t exist when I was a 28-year-old reporter.”

Hear their full conversation on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher, and subscribe to ProPublica’s podcasts to hear conversations like these each week.

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