The events surrounding the reporting of Michael Jackson’s death last week bring up issues with news reporting that I think are worth discussing.
Granted, this discussion isn’t new, but it’s interesting, at least to me.
Twitter offers a new channel to reporters, due to its immediacy and network effects, i.e. it’s very quick to publish and easy to spread a story to thousands of people. Obviously, this appeals to mainstream media as a distribution channel.
However, as we saw last week, Twitter doesn’t wait for standard journalistic practices like fact-checking. In the case of Michael Jackson’s death, Twitter (and TMZ) turned out to be correct, but I wonder if this will have a detrimental effect on future news reporting.
News outlets like to have exclusives and scoops because being first and exclusive adds readers and viewers. Adding readers and viewers means more advertisement, which means more money. Balancing the desire to be first and exclusive with accuracy has always been a fine line for every news-reporting outlet. After all accuracy builds trust, which also means more readers/viewers.
Twitter completely breaks this model because anyone can say anything and pass it off as truth, or mistakenly have it interpreted as truth.
Of course, by the time the dust settles and fact-checking proves or disputes, it’s far too late to sort out the mess.
So, what good is Twitter then?
It’s very good for first-hand accounts of news, again assuming the person tweeting is actually on the scene. The Hudson River plane crash is an excellent example of the effectiveness of Twitter. We even had a news story of sorts come through Mix last year, when Debra Lilley was trapped in an elevator before OpenWorld.
Beyond first-hand reports, it gets a bit dicey.
The good news is that Twitter users showed a high level of suspicion last week, as evidenced by the traffic spikes many sites experienced as people tried to verify what they read on Twitter by hitting various news sites around the ‘tubes. Similar bumps were seen after the Hudson River crash was reported on Twitter.
So, is it enough to assume that people don’t believe what they hear from Twitter, at least not without checking for themselves?
Not that it’s possible, but it would be interesting to see if people check first, then re/tweet, or vice versa. I’d like to think it’s the former, which is the behavior I saw on Thursday. This may be the case, since many of these tweets are associated with people, and therefore carry reputation with them, i.e. there’s some risk to crying wolf.
So maybe we apply the trust model to tweets.
If that’s the case, then citizen journalism won. If not, we have a problem.
Traditional media will continue to feel pressure from services like Twitter/Facebook, as they are scooped by blogs and on-the-scene reporting. What remains to be seen is how they handle it, e.g. the AP has taken steps to define what its employees, specifically its reporters, can say via Twitter and Facebook.
Policies make sense, but I wonder how much longer mainstream media will put up with reporting news that broke first on Twitter. At some point, wouldn’t they prefer saying that they broke the story first on Twitter?
So, what do you think? Do people put too much faith in citizen journalism, or do you think everyone has the right amount of skepticism to make it work? How should mainstream media react to services that threaten to scoop them?
Find the comments.