Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Twitter Breaks News First, Often Makes It Up

Mediabistro led its newsfeed today with praise for a Twitter user who broke the story of Whitney Houston’s death an hour before the Associated Press did. The story began:

Twitter has long-established itself as the ‘go to’ place for breaking news, and this has never been so clearly demonstrated following the sad passing of music superstar Whitney Houston on Saturday.

Other celebrities whose sad passing I recall Twitter been the first to mention include Cher and Zach Braff, both of whom are still very much alive. If Twitter is anyone’s go-to place for news about anything, they are courting rampant misinformation. A network on which any user can post any claim they want is not a news service, it’s a rumor mill.

That is exactly the way Twitter functioned in the case of Whitney Houston’s death. The tweet that “broke the story” was from user @BarBeeBritt, and said only, “Is Whitney Houston really dead?” News reports, by their very nature, do not take the form of questions. There isn’t supposed to be any uncertainty about the essential facts of the story; it’s only news if you’ve confirmed the story with a reliable source and you’re certain that you’re not playing an inadvertent hoax on the public.

If CNN functioned as Twitter does, an anchor would come back from commercial break, look squarely into the camera and say, “We think Katy Perry might have been crushed by an anvil this morning. If anyone knows anything about this, please send us an e-mail.” If that ever happened, or the New York Times ever ran a story along the lines of “Australian Possibly Engulfed by Giant Fireball: Will Confirm/Deny for Tomorrow’s Edition,” I hope that a mob of angry, truth loving citizens would grab torches and clubs and destroy the infrastructure of the organization. Then, when all the media goes that way, we can just rely on a nationwide game of telephone to disseminate every fact-like piece of possibly-information.

Yeah, Twitter was the first to mention the story of Whitney Houston’s death, but speed cannot possibly be the only criterion we have for what constitutes the go-to source for breaking news. There’s got to be a place for reliability. Thirteen minutes after @ BarBeeBritt’s tweet, user @AjaDiorNavy tweeted, exactly thus: “omgg , my aunt tiffany who work for whitney houston just found whitney houston dead in tub . such ashame & sad :-( “

That actually counts as information, but the trouble is that there’s no way of knowing that at the moment that it’s tweeted. On Twitter, anyone could have said that about any celebrity just to get attention or cause a stir, and many have. I expect that when someone sees mention of a significant event on Twitter, his first impulse is to turn on the television or check a professional news website. And if a person doesn’t do that, but just takes whatever has been tweeted at face value, he is disturbingly naïve and gullible.

The old saying applies about a stopped clock being right twice a day. But also, a stopped clock will tell you it’s eleven o’clock long before it actually is. It’s easy to be the first on a story; it’s not so easy to get it right. I’d rather wait a little while for news that is relevant, accurate, and thorough, and I’m much more likely to focus my attention on the media outlet that misinforms me least often, rather than on the one that informs or misinforms me most quickly.

It was forty-two minutes after the tweet by @AjaDiorNavy that the Associated Press used Twitter to break the story by indicating that the news of Houston’s death came from her publicist Kristen Foster. Forty-two minutes past hearsay and fifty-five minutes past the intimation of rumor. I know that the world moves fast these days, but is one hour really too long to wait for information that’s been vetted by an organization whose very purpose is to provide the public with news? Is there no lower limit breaking point at which the rapid speed of the news cycle is no longer worth its resulting unreliability? Personally, I think we should have hit that point long before anybody had the gall to describe Twitter as the go-to source for anything other than rumor and idle chatter.

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