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Friday, January 16, 2009

Twitter is the new... news? Not so fast.

First off, thankfully nobody was seriously hurt let alone killed in yesterday’s emergency landing. This is the first time in U.SLink. history that this has happened involving a water landing. As the story unfolded, a few thoughts came to mind about how people covered this story vs. how traditional media approached it. Hopefully it makes sense because there are a lot things at play here, hence the long rant.

The main thing I noticed about yesterday was how Twitter and social media were upgraded to major media status by more than a few people. This sentiment will likely continue over the next few days even though I don’t really think that’s what’s going on here.

To briefly recap, go back to when it all started, around 3:30 or so. Subsequently, a person on one of the soon to be rescue ferries snapped a shot of the plane with the passengers waiting for help. From there, people spread that pic across Twitter while some of the major TV outlets picked up on it, and mass media ensued.

At first glance, you’d think, wow, Twitter broke a story that nobody else did, and you might be right—if you weren’t wrong. “But, but, the guy snapped a pic, he uploaded it first.” Yes and no. Lemmee explain. CBS in New York actually broke into regular programming to announce the story at the same time I saw it on Twitter, because I was watching both when it happened. (This has happened on Twitter before with news events as well.)

The authorities already knew about the event because the pilot had notified the tower and civilians had phoned it in. Twitter pic man was able to get that shot only because the ferry he was on went to go help the survivors, otherwise he ain’t getting that shot.

Basically, the captains of the respective ferries, (like Juan Rosario), knew something was wrong before any of the passengers did. As Juan pulled out of the dock, he noticed something in the distance and realized it was a plane. We don’t think about that though. All we see is the result of one commuter snapping a shot on his cell, and now that 15 minutes of fame image appears all over the world.

But I had it first!

One thing traditional media relies on is the exclusive. ‘Only on...’ ‘As we first reported...’ and so on. Social media and Twitter levels that self-promotional playing field—and even makes it worse in some ways. Is the person sitting in front of the TV yesterday seeing that story any less knowledgable than the person who was on Twitter and saw a link to that pic, or vice-versa? I saw it 10 minutes before you so I was first?

What about the guy on scene taking that picture before anyone online saw it. He didn’t know the why behind the crash, he just knew there was a plane in the water. Then there were all of us on Twitter getting reports of a bird that had caused it all. Who was more right?

Used to be that getting there first was king, but now, with how stories have a second life online, does that even matter as much? Over the next few days, people will start to find new images to post or links to animated timelines. Cell phone vids on YouTube will soon be popping up, bet.

So you heard about the crash before anyone? Cool. Guess what:

I have you beat because I have actual footage from my cell phone the moment the birds hit outside my window seat. The dynamic of what you thought was the actual moment of the ‘story’ at 3:30 yesterday and when you first ‘heard’ about it has changed. (UPDATE: Proving the point, video on YouTube and elsewhere of the entire water landing and subsequent rescue
is now available.)

The wrong stuff.

That’s minor because the bigger thing is how the news was spread through Twitterville™ with the same inaccuracies that plaque major media at times like this. This is the problem with so-called Citizen Journalism. Until we get definitive, reliable, alternative conformation, we still go to CNN. (Far be it for me to quote the movie Armageddon, but if the paraphrase fits....)

For all it’s up to the minute glory, we’re not there yet. Yet. Letting the world know what you had for lunch while you listen to Bach in front of an ‘amazingly awesome’ sunset is one thing, but when it comes to news, Twitter is still unfiltered B-roll—without context. B-roll that news editors at the networks have almost always decided to show or not show depending on the nature of the content.

Not on Twitter.

When the terrorists attacked in Mumbai last month, there were amazingly awesome links on Twitter to Flicker images with blood and rubble. Things the major media didn’t have until much later. Problem is, while this almost up to the minute coverage brings you closer to what almost just nearly happened, it also serves a voyeuristic need we have to turn and stare at a car crash. Raise your hand if you keep looking straight ahead when you pass an accident on the highway, because there aren’t a lot who do.

Fear not traditional news junkies, the bastion of fair and balanced, Fox 5 in NYC had its anchors Ernie Anastas and Dari Alexander all over the case. When it became clear though that there weren’t going to be any body bags to tally, they appeared lost. Reporters near the scene resorted to the same tactics they always do, shouting questions at survivors and officials.

“Who was hurt? What was the smoke like? How bad was the fire? How was the experience, it must have been harrowing! How are you feeling right now?? What’s your name!?!! Coach, what do you have to do in the second half? OMG!!!!”

They report—I deride.

Ernie had several great moments as well, like the joke he cracked that to bring a plane down this smoothly and calmly, the caption must have been on autopilot. But my favorite WTF moment was when he later suggested it would’ve been better if the survivors jumped in the water that was in the mid-30s because it would’ve been warmer than standing around in 19°air. Hank Kingsley lives.

Later, they took us to the apartment of an upper West Side mom who caught all the action. AN ACTUAL MOMWITNESS! The eyewitness video? Um, there wasn’t any. Not of the crash anyway as you were lead to believe. Turns out she never caught the actual plane landing. She only recounted what she saw. (The only thing more inane would’ve been if she was a soccer mommy video blogger.)

Is that type of reporting really the best they can do?

When it was clear there was still no there there, the focus then shifted to how people heard about the news and how they still could be a part of it. Why, Dari even wanted you to do Fox’s job for them and submit your pics to their website.

Instead, people posted their own stuff anywhere they could. (You can go to one of the sites I regularly use for Flickr searches,, search using the term flight1549 and you can see any and all pics someone posted on Flickr to this point.) Which leads me to another problem faced by Twitter and social media sites in general.

The information is not 100% reliable.

Aka, bloggers aren’t journalists, right? Maybe. In Twitter circles, people started spreading the story instantly, and subsequently, became part of the story. I’m guilty as charged. During yesterday’s Tweetfest, I would post info that came from Fox that turned out at times to not be accurate. Small thing, but something like the press conference that was scheduled with Mayor Bloomberg and one of the pilots. Fox announced it, I tweeted it.

Turns out, it was wrong, because the mayor said he only spoke to the pilot on the phone. Then there was one of the passengers who reported that he saw a woman’s leg cut off. Granted, he had just came through a hell of an ordeal and probably mistook blood from a cut for something much worse. Turns out, he was wrong too, but the news picked up on it.

Another problem is that, like CNN, etc., there is no standard for how people spread unreliable, alternative conformations yet. Basically, first person to the keyboard wins. When it came to those actual links on Twitter, people used different hashtags. (If you’re not familiar with them, hashtags make it easy to search through tons of online content for those diamonds in the rough.) There were #flight1549, #hudson, #hudsonriver, #USAir and #USAirways to name a few, but not everyone used the same one so it’s likely you would miss a valuable post.

Again, small examples, but they show that while the majors don’t get always get details right, well, neither does the Wild West World of Twitter. Compounding the free-for-all is that each wave of updates was then retweeted ad nauseum, and was no more accurate than the initial reports.

Your two followers told their two followers, and so on. Like they always do, retweets became a copy of a copy of a copy with a little bit of the original eroded each time out, but nobody seemed to care if the info was accurate.

Not to mention the three hours later crowd that always reposts what everyone else already knows. (Hmmm. Look stupid or out of touch. Your choice.) That’s okay though because this fills another need on SM sites like Twitter:

I need to be heard.

This sentiment says posting something will make me feel like I’ve actually contributed, and maybe even become part of the story. “CNN picked up my link!!!!!” was one tweet I saw last night. I also mentioned citizen journalism, (a term I hate more than any other), but really, let’s face it, citizen journalists are no different than storm chasers.

You know it’s true. The thrillseekers who try to capture footage that they hope will be picked up by CNN or another channel? Meanwhile, they high five each other as hail takes out their windshield. Or the dudes who monitor police scanners so they can be first on the scene to capture it on tape.

I’m not saying everyone does that, but, many do. Even one of the people who took a shot of the plane said he chased it down river because he knew it would end up at Battery Park. He wanted to get there first and take shots before the cops chased him and others away.

Lady Di crash scene images much?

I know there’s a push to give this type of SM reportage its due right alongside legit news sources, but instead of replacing or competing with them, I think it will just work within the context of major media at some point in some kind of symbiotic relationship. Isn’t that what happens now with that twister footage that gets sent in to, or the house on fire you see on the local news shot by your neighbor?

This will be no different.

Twitter will continue to fill the knowledge gaps that exist in major stories that are still developing. That pic of the plane taken from the ferry became the central visual for a lot of major outlets, so I’m not downplaying the significance of it. Far from it. That’s the money shot that most photographers look for. I just think Twitter is not going to replace major news outlets so much as morph into them. Why?

Major media provides content that SM needs to survive.

For the most part, the Wall Street Journal and and every other major news outlets do the heavy lifting and provide the fodder for bloggers to riff off of. Lines are blurring between the two factions, yes, but a lot of bloggers start their posts off with “I was reading the New York times the other day and....” Anyone saying citizen journalism will replace mass media first needs to stop relying on it for blog material, then we’ll talk.

What I see happening though is Twitterville will continue to capture so much B-roll that eventually the majors will work with them to sort through it all and make these people their affiliates. Just like Google sent out street teams to map and shoot locations, eventually there will be a Twitterer with an iPhone on every corner, sitting, latte in hand, waiting.

They need to. CNN’s Twitter feed was a joke yesterday.


Ben Kunz said...

Nice rant.

One thing I'm curious about is why immediacy has so much value. News is much more important if the event just happened 5 seconds ago, vs. today, vs. yesterday. But it's the *same* event. So why do humans value it more based on some abstract proximity in time?

The whole Twitter rush you speak of plays off our desire to get communications fast -- when often in-depth, later reports would be more valuable.

Just a thought. I'm clearing my office out of old magazines that I haven't read -- but who wants to read anything a year old?

Hal Goodtree said...

I watched your tweets all evening on the story. Maybe it was the novelty. Maybe CNN had better amp up the tweeting.