Citizen Journalism Gets a Test

People report that Twitter had a brown/blackout during the MJ tweetsTwitter has a pretty impressive list of news stories its users have broken and covered more accurately than mainstream news outlets.

To name a few:

The immediacy and speed of updating Twitter when news happens around you makes, coupled with its network effects, make it a very good tool for spreading news before news reports can be produced and broadcast.

This afternoon may be a turning point for Twitter and citizen journalism.About 30 minutes ago, I saw a FriendFeed alert saying simply “RIP Michael Jackson”. This is big news, since after all, MJ is still the King of Pop, or at least no one has stepped up to take that crown.

I immediately went to see what was trending on Twitter, and sure enough, “rip michael jackson” was the top trending item, point to a sketchy report from TMZ posted at 3:20 Pacific time.

TMZ isn’t exactly a credible source IMO, so I went to CNN for the skinny. As of about 3:30, was reporting MJ was admitted to the hospital for cardiac arrest. Odd.

After a refresh, the story changed from admitted to coma according to “sources”.

Finally, as I began to write this post, Twitter was already questioning the validity of the report, which lead me to start writing, and now, the LA Times has reported MJ’s death, but only after their servers took a header from all the Twitter traffic.

And now, CNN has updated the status to deceased as well, a full 20 or so minutes after TMZ broke the story with help from Twitter.

My timeline isn’t super accurate, and I’m sure there will be *numerous* posts on this trail of events in the next 24 hours.

So, what’s my angle?

Well it started out to be a snarky rant about TMZ and the sheep of Twitter, but now, I’m in full 180 mode to make myself look good.

Not really. I’m happy to admit I doubted the TMZ report and the initial tweets. Besides, I’ve used Celebrity Death Beeper (disclosure, I know the creator) for over a decade to stay on top of this type of, erm, news. That’s how I learned that Farrah Fawcett had died earlier today.

So, now the snarky tweets and goodbyes have started. This post (h/t Kasper Sorensen on FriendFeed) was pretty funny.

Image from Silicon Alley Insider

This is a clear win for citizen journalism over mainstream media. I guess journalistic integrity got in the way.

I use the term win loosely. It’s only a matter of time before someone cries wolf in a tweet, accidentally or intentionally, and Twitter trends wolf cries all over the place. I don’t think that’s good.

I don’t have any answers here. Citizen journalism and Twitter as its outlet definitely have a place in modern news reporting, but definitely don’t forget to add the salt.

Ack, even as I try to finish this post, Jeff Goldblum’s death is being reported on Twitter. I guess we’ll find out in a few minutes if that’s a wolf cry or a surreal combination of events.

Assuming Twitter and the ‘tubes can handle the traffic.




  1. Good article that helped me to understand the angle from your tweet. If my memory serves me correctly, I read that TMZ initially reported him as dead and then later stated he was in a coma when there was some level of uncertainty. I'd love to know when exactly he was proclaimed dead and when the TMZ report and the initial tweets came out.

    Crowds can be wrong, but they can be useful to get our attention.

  2. This isn't technically a wisdom of crowds exercise, since there wasn't a decision to be made, aside from believing or not.

    I didn't realize TMZ changed their initial assertion from dead to coma. Maybe they doubted their source, surprise 🙂

  3. That whole thing smelled of a hoax from the start, considering the timing. I wonder who's behind it, seems like an attempt to drive traffic that succeeded. If so, it's hilarious to me that the Twitter traffic crushed the server.

  4. Try googling heart attack or cold feet.

    “more accurately” my big hairy tuchus.

    I really doubt the accuracy of the Iranian election riots tweets, too. The gummint repressiveness almost guarantees the repressed feel they need to exaggerate. Not necessarily the original tweeters, but those who pass it along. And of course, some of the original tweeters are going to be speaking through emotional filters, and some will rationalize that gummint actions allow or require exaggeration. ” We know it is worse than we see“.

    I worked with a lot of Persian programmers who fled persecution after 1979. The ladies were especially happy to be out of there.

  5. Mmm-k. Twitter is good at reporting news, e.g. there's a riot, there's an earthquake, there's a gunman shooting people, someone's dead, this place is on fire, etc.

    Beyond the factual nature of the tweets, and yes, they are frequently factual (see examples), the emotional nature of being caught up in the news is bound to come across in tweets.

  6. Not quite sure that I would call tweeting “RIP MJ” journalism, especially if I just rehash what I just read on TMZ or some other tweet. Then again, I also wouldn't call a lot of what I see on TV these days journalism either.

    How does one measure the accuracy of twitter vs. the mainstream media? What is the unit of measure you'd use for that? Just wondering… (and again, I am not a big fan of the accuracy/quality of many mainstream media outlets).

  7. The problem is that journalism is increasingly more about speed and scoop and less about accuracy, which is why services like Twitter have marginalized reporting the news.

    The only way to measure accuracy is in hindsight, so based on the examples I've given and others, Twitter does a good job. This isn't a good way to measure, since no one tracks false reports on Twitter, or at least, they're quickly forgotten.

    I'm not advocating either medium as better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.