Mainstream media’s wary view of Twitter

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai last week may prove to be the tipping point for Twitter, in that it seems no news organisation can now resist doing a story about the microblogging service.

The BBC has done two radio reports this week, one for BBC World Service’s Digital Planet and the other for Radio 4’s Media Show – you can get a podcast of the shows on those pages.

The Media Show interviews a Twitter user in Mumbai about what happened during the terrorist attacks last week and how Twitter helped people keep in touch during the hours of confusion and was a positive communications tool for Indians affected by the attacks – and his view is entirely pro-Twitter.

Perhaps for balance, then, the show turns to the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones to provide ‘balance’: Cellan-Jones, himself an inverterate self-confessed Twitter-holic, has also written a blog entitled “Twiter – The Mumbai myths” covering much the same ground.

Unconsciously or not, programmes like the Media Show ended up being structured with the pro comments coming from users and contributors to twitter, and then the cautionary (or negative) views coming from the ‘experts’ like Cellan-Jones who then come over as sceptical and even negative. So while conceding that even he heard about the Mumbai attacks first from Twitter last Wednesday, Cellan-Jones’ contribution concentrates on the downsides:

  • There was simply too much information (The Times of India reported 80 ‘tweets’ every five seconds at the height of the attacks.)
  • There was no way of knowing what was true and what wasn’t.

These have also been the points of focus for other news networks’ coverage of the Twitter effect on Mumbai coverage. In CNN’s coverage for example, they quote a blogger saying “I started to see and (sic) ugly side to Twitter, far from being a crowd-sourced version of the news it was actually an incoherent, rumour-fueled mob operating in a mad echo chamber of tweets, re-tweets and re-re-tweets. During the hour or so I followed on Twitter there were wildly differing estimates of the numbers killed and injured – ranging up to 1,000.”

I’m all for impartial and objective reporting, but I’m a little uneasy about the line the news organisations are taking here – because in the subject of news reporting, they can be by definition neither impartial nor completely objective. This is their industry we’re talking about, and their jobs.

Or to put in bluntly: the coverage comes across as saying “Yes, Twitter’s all very good and fast and on-the-ground, but only through us – the traditional news professionals – can you get reliable news, carefully selected and presented so you folks can understand it and trust it.” It’s been the self-image of the news organisations for a century, and they’re sticking to it.

Personally I think people do a prety good job on the whole of working out what’s true and what’s not. Ironically, we’re probably better at doing this in the UK – where the tabloids have always had a loose connection with ‘news’ at the best of times and we read them with a large pinch of salt nearby – than in the US, where the press has traditionally been venerated and trusted almost without question.

So for example, when I heard the Big Myth about the Mumbai Twitter coverage – that the Indian government has appealed for live Twitter updates from the area to cease immediately to protect police and military operations – I pretty much dismissed it. Hard to believe the Inidian government would be remotely concerned about something as insignificant Twitter at a time of national crisis.

Ironically I only gave it any measure of credence when it showed up again … on the BBC. And then other sources started mentioning the BBC’s mention of it, so it became more credible and long-running than the original source-less Tweet ever could have managed.

So I’m sorry, the Big Myth about the Mumbai Twitter coverage actually shows the problem of big mainstream news media: they distort the market. If all sources are equally trustworthy (or equally dubious, in the case of unknown Twitter correspondents) then you learn to be sceptical about everything. But if a ‘gatekeeper’ trusted professional organisation weighs in and repeats things then it instantly perverts that scepticism.

As for there being “too much information” – well, it’s true that if you tried to keep up with the raw feed of 16 Tweets per second then there was no way you were going to be able to read everything. But that’s not how Twitter’s meant to work anyway: it’s actually a news journalist’s default mode (access raw wire feeds and read everything, then filter, write article and publish).

Instead, ‘regular’ Twitter users will set up a network of friends and associates to follow. I follow some 210 Twitter feeds, for example, and get maybe two or three tweets per minute. On Wednesday 26th, this volume was increased but still no more than one or two a minute. From this selection I was able to see that a story had definitely emerged, and that there was a pattern and consistency in the reports. Aborations (inaccurate reports) were quickly noticed and dismissed. In other words, my social network was doing a pretty good gatekeeper role all by itself without the major news organisations.

I could have explored more deeply and added new names to follow, if I’d wanted more detail. And I think that if I had, I would have ended up with a better sense of what it was really like on the ground – including the panics, false alarms, inaccurate and confusing information that is inevitable on the ground during such an emergency crisis. I’d rather have that option and that control, and I’m rather tired of the implication by news media that news is only news when carefully filtered, selected, processed and packaged by professionals. It’s not: news is what happens in the real world, and that includes the messy stuff.

Which is not to say that I don’t also like having someone come along and provide a summary and analysis of the event so I can understand it better. I do – and I love the BBC, CNN, the newspapers and other news organisations for this service they provide so well. But they need to understand that things are moving on, nothing stays the same, and it’s time for people to act as their own gatekeepers as well, and not have their hands held by nanny journalists who are just as fallible as everyone else.

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