Twitter for Reporting the News

Photo by Ernst Moeksis on Flickr used under Creative Commons

Photo by Ernst Moeksis on Flickr used under Creative Commons

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.




  1. I saw that comes across one of my feeds today. Can't be by accident 🙂

    The “Tips from Bob Woodward” sounds interesting 🙂 re. confidential sources. I wonder how long Deep Throat would have stayed confidential in this era.

  2. I think if there are a significant volume of original/unique tweets about a particular event, then that lends it credibility. When Melbourne recently experienced an earthquake, I tweeted it almost immediately and then watched as many other original tweets were published. Re-tweeting on the other hand, lends no discernible credibility. Not aware of any ways to figure this out from trending services.

  3. News isn't a one-size-fits-all situation. The timeline is an important differentiator. The death of a celebrity is a spike, and doesn't require any in-depth understanding. Similar with a plane crash. The traditional news organisations are better suited to the challenges of reporting extended events, like an election campaign or the financial crisis.
    Their problem is that, without the revenue from the 'spike' news, can they sustain the in-depth coverage ?
    Personally if 'citizen journalism' can kill off the gossip sheets and paparazzi, I'm all in favour of it.

  4. Hmm, that would be helpful, i.e. tracking trends based on original vs. retweeted content. Twitter (and Summize before they were acquired) never published the algorithm for trending topics.

  5. Yeah, Twitter is a great way to launch a DDOS attack. Just tweet something juicy and plausible with a shortened link and sit back while the site you targeted gets pounded by curious rubberneckers.

  6. Agreed, journalism isn't just reporting the news, it's analysis and access to sources that Twitter can never replicate. Even longer format blogging can't hope to replicate the immediacy of Twitter.

    I share your concern about spikes driving ad revenue, and somehow I doubt that we'll see the end of paparazzi and gossip rags anytime soon.

  7. I think it's great that citizen journalism exists, and that the web provides such a great publishing platform for it.

    The agendas pushed by the mainstream media outlets are often pretty biased. I guess my point is slightly OT compared to the one you're making – but if you look are projects like IndyMedia, ElectronicIntifada, MediaLens etc, they offer a different slant to that offered by Sky / CNN / BBC, which would never get reported on mainstream media because it would alienate advertisers, and cause a massive upset if they challenged the status quo.

    Of course, there are always going to be useless rubbish posed as news, but I guess people learn to be discerning… mostly!

  8. I'm also glad we have a platform for citizen journalism, and I agree that advertising skews what is reported by the major news outlets. I hope my post didn't come off as against citizen journalism.

    The Web provides a great populist tool that produces awesome stuff like citizen journalism, but one side-effect to populism is it doesn't discern, leaving you to sort out the gold from the crap.

  9. Sorry Jake – no criticism intended. It was more that I was probably using your post as a chance to get on my soapbox and drone on about something completely unrelated. Sorry about that. Great content as ever Jake – thanks!

  10. No worries at all, I was just rechecking myself to make sure I hadn't come off as anti-citizen journalism. Your point is valid to this topic, which isn't just about Twitter.

  11. While I'll grant that Twitter provides a way to disseminate a message quickly, the issues with rapid reporting of false items are not unique to the 21st century. Take the 1835 newspaper reports about the discovery of life on the moon. No electronic technology was used to disseminate this information, but the fact that it was a multi-part series helped to guarantee that the newspaper would benefit from an increase in readership.

    Lou Hampton wonders how people could have been so gullible as to believe that story, and then concludes: “The gullibility gene, by the way, was discovered by researchers at the UCLA Medical Center in 2003. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005.”

  12. Sure, Orson Wells did it in the 30s with War of the Worlds. A combination of faster media to spread information and way more people around to spread it makes this a bigger issue today.

    Plus, the gullibility gene has been found to be dominant, meaning they are all around us, like zombies . . .

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