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Monday, January 18, 2010

They wouldn’t tweet it if wasn’t true, right?

Aka, why your news is broke and won’t be fixed anytime soon.

During the initial hours after the Haiti earthquake Twitter was abuzz, abuzz I say, with thousands of retweets covering where to donate or first pictures from the scene. These came from well-known media outlets as well as possibly your neighbor.

One of the things that influenced this post is an exchange I had with Lou Young from WCBS-TV. He’d had put out this tweet about which asked which news organization would be first to be put up fully functional news reports about the story. Traditional mainstream media snob radar now pinged, I responded half-jokingly: Twitter.

Proving once again Twitter might not like irony or my brand of sarcasm, the thread ultimately would go like this. Rethinking how I might adjust the snark so as to make the point seemed like it might end up a fail, thus further confusing things. So I simply said what I really think is happening now, that there’s a fragmentation of where and how we get a story.

If Young’s attitude is any indication, it’s apparent that users have grasped this concept while mainstream media still seems to fight it. That’s not to single him out. He obviously “gets” Twitter, being active on it with a nice follower/following ratio. It’s just that the sentiment caught me the wrong way, and seemed to echo one I’ve heard before from major media.

(Ben Kunz has a nice piece on the news now mentality, and there’s a more intense look on media coverage using newspaper headlines to tell the story, via Darryl Ohrt.)

Taken further though, why does it matter who came up with the story first?

It seems like just another convention that traditional media is clinging to. Live! Late-breaking! Hyper-local! Problem is, it was just as quickly disproved by a number of inaccurate reports coming out a day later from sources you *may* have heard of before:

The AP was reporting 500,000+ dead. Breitbart had it in the thousands. CNN was reporting 100,000 dead. Even now, the BBC doesn’t know.

When news is developing and always changing like that, how does being first matter anymore? (If you really want to get all zen, the synchronicity of the event and the victims experiencing it could be considerd the true first reporters on the scene.)

Better still though is your local hyper late newsbreaker who will almost always come on and say “New details are starting to emerge about the story we first reported yesterday.”

Translation: We never really had the actual numbers right, but at least our misinformation was first.

So then, how is that not what happens with Twitter now, and why is one source better or worse than the other?

It happened to me soon after my back and forth with Lou. (We’re tight like that.) Underscoring how hard it is to get definitive reliable alternative confirmation, I saw the next night where someone tweeted that American Airlines was offering free flights to doctors to help out down there. Hey, cool. Let me retweet that.

That was my first mistake.

Problem was, they weren’t flying doctors for free per se. I didn’t find this out though until 20 minutes later and 16 people had already retweeted that. One of them however said that the information was wrong. Ever the fact-checker (HA!), I quickly looked up the trail of said tweet and found that it wasn’t entirely wrong.

(Red Cross was picking up the tab for the flights in question—American Airlines was only facilitating the travel.)

This highlights one of the problems with alternative news outlets like Twitter that Lou et al. seem to have. The core of a journalist is their ability to check the accuracy of a story, since credibility is all they have, right? It’s all anyone has really, as I knew I had to correct my information. It’s here that I agree with him.

This unfiltered B-roll becomes viral news though. It can help—or cloud the information stream. As such, it’s up to each person to check their sources. I’ve been lucky to this point that this incident was about the worst case of me throwing something out that was initially wrong.

That’s not to say I didn’t check the tweet history before I retweeted—I did. I just didn’t go to American Airlines directly as a few had until after I discovered a problem. I basically assumed the tweet I saw was accurate. Yeah, I know, assume = ass.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who was passing this one around though.

There just wasn’t any correction made by the people I had retweeted. Only after cross-checking people who corrected them did I find out where the problem was. I then posted a correction soon after. Thing is, you can’t rely on the people who retweet what you post also coming back to check for updates.

The more sure way is to reply directly back to people in a mass update. A pain unless your flock hangs on your every word, in which case, you don’t have to go to that length and they’ll spread the word for you.

The power of the community was such that one prominent blogger who follows my stream was enough to influence the number of retweets I had. Luckily, they all checked their replies and saw I made a correction.

After I was alerted to it, I followed my particular thread back and found it had started with Roger Ebert. Yeah, that guy. Turns out the grapevine decided to embellish each step along the way, even though Roger had started out with the info wrong too.

Compounding the problem is that even when everyone finds out their information is wrong, they don’t take the steps I took to correct it. They leave their original tweet up or fail to notify people. It’s here that Lou may have a case.

Going back and checking like a reporter calling a source to check and recheck, then confirm will result in a possibly more accurate story but it may not get up first. That’s the fully functional caveat of Lou’s thread: Fully functional, right?

This will come with the territory as people figure things out more and more. Twitter, blogs or Facebook status updates are now additional ways to discover a story; they’re not replacements for major media. (Yet.) They’re just as prone to inaccuracies as any news source might be.

Still, I’ve found out about different aspects of many stories this past year on Twitter first. These weren’t retweets per se of reports from other media; these were from people directly involved.

Video tells a story other media can’t, of course, but how can I go back to just relying on a CBS or CNN when I can get footage on YouTube or pics on Flickr hours before they do?

News fragmentation is here, time to deal.


phillybikeboy said...

News fragmentation has always been here. We just have a few more fragments now. There has always be a more-or-less direct correlation between the immediacy of the reporting and its accuracy. It's not simply a matter of how may eyeballs have had a chance to review the information, but that things are seldom as they first appear. Twitter is hyper-immediate, and most users aren't anywhere near trained observers, but that's not a bad thing. If anything, it's a good reminder that we should be skeptical media consumers, and never trust any single source.

mtlb said...

Noted, clarified. ;-p