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Summary:

Debates about whether Twitter breaks news or not miss the point about how the news game has changed with the arrival of social media and the democratization of distribution it provides. Mainstream media outlets are still players, but they are no longer the only ones.

One of the signs of how much Twitter and other social tools are disrupting media is the strenuous argument about how they aren’t doing this at all — including the repeated assertion that “Twitter doesn’t break news.” In the latest example of the genre, a writer in the American Journalism Review makes the case that Twitter didn’t break the news about recent events such as Whitney Houston’s death or the assassination of Osama bin Laden, because those events didn’t actually become “news” until they were confirmed by mainstream sources. This kind of thinking betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about how news works now.

In the piece, Barb Palser — who works for a website-management company called Internet Broadcasting and is the American Journalism Review‘s new-media columnist — takes issue with stories that have been written by outlets like Mashable about how Twitter broke the news of singer Whitney Houston’s death hours before the mainstream press found out about it. She notes that a timeline of Twitter data around that event shows that there wasn’t much activity until the Associated Press announced the news:

While nearly an hour passed between the first known mention of Houston’s death and the AP’s report, Twitter’s timeline clearly shows that the story flatlined until the AP tweet. It was that properly attributed post by a credible news organization with a broad following that broke through the noise.

While the AP report may have sparked a lot more attention and confirmed the news for many on Twitter, it’s a mistake to see what happened before that as just “noise.” It’s true — as Palser and others have noted — that Twitter routinely experiences waves of fake death reports about celebrities, and other so-called news reports that later turn out not to be true. But that doesn’t change the fact that the network has become a source of news for growing numbers of people, and in most cases it is just as fast to correct mistaken reports as the mainstream press, if not faster.

Traditional media are no longer the only source of news

Palser is right when she says that some of the news that comes through Twitter occurs via links from mainstream sources such as the NYT or the AP, and she’s also right to suggest that these social tools are a powerful force that traditional news organizations should be making use of — instead of telling their employees not to post news to Twitter, as outlets like Sky News and Associated Press have done recently. But the reality is that what Om calls the “democratization of distribution” provided by the web and social media means news can come from anywhere, at any time, and from a wide variety of sources.

In many cases, those sources will be individuals who are actually involved in the news — whether they are dissidents in Syria video-taping the revolution there and uploading it to YouTube, or Rupert Murdoch posting his thoughts to Twitter. This is what New York Times media writer Brian Stelter means when he talks about “sources going direct,” an idea that pioneering blogger Dave Winer was one of the first to put into words. If someone wants to break the news about their sports career ending or the fact that U.S. helicopters are shelling a notorious terrorist’s family compound, they have the tools to do that.

It’s tempting for mainstream media players to see news as something that only occurs when they report it. But events like the recent dust-up between the Wall Street Journal and blogger MG Siegler over some Apple news reinforce how dated that concept is. It’s true that for possibly a majority of readers, the news became fact when the Journal reported it — but for many, having Siegler report it was enough, because they trust him as a source of Apple news. In the same way, many people believed that Osama bin Laden was dead hours before CNN reported it because Brian Stelter (a NYT writer many people trust) retweeted a message from what appeared to be a credible source.

This is what the phrase “news as a process” means. Instead of being an artifact that the traditional media labor over and then punch out from an assembly line, it is almost a living thing that moves from rumor to fact gradually, with many different inputs — some of which may come from mainstream sources, and some of which may not. In the end, it is about the trust that readers have in those sources, and what has changed forever is that traditional media are no longer the only ones who are able to earn that trust.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Petteri Sulonen and jphilipg.

  1. So Twitter breaks the news after the news is confirmed by AP? That’s no breaking news.

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  2. Whoever tells ME first broke the story.

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  3. And who is to say that astute journalists aren’t using Twitter/social media as a lead source? As in regular reporting there may be many false leads but it could to a breaking story. The journalist does a little validation of the lead…and presto; an authenticated breaking story from a media outlet.

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  4. Only trusted news sources can effectively break news. That *any* news source (twitter user, blogger, TV network, print publisher, skywriter, town crier, whatever) can become a trusted news source is true, but that’s not the same as saying that *all* sources of news are to be trusted, and therefore capable of breaking news.

    To another commenter’s point, if it’s not news until the AP confirms then it’s not really ‘broken’.

    Also (and I might be picking nits but I think it’s important) Twitter doesn’t break news, except news about Twitter. Twitter *users* break news, and they can be as trustworthy or untrustworthy as, well, people.

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    1. Those are both good points, Bo — thanks for the comment.

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    2. invitedmedia Friday, March 2, 2012

      “twitter doesn’t break news…”

      so on the rare occasion the TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS score a goal, do the announcers now have to say that “well, the leafs really didn’t score, it was the players”.

      get real.

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  5. Is it just me, or this like the 300th time this same exact story, headline and all, has been written on Gigaom?

    Seriously, we get it.

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    1. I think 300 is an exaggeration, but it is a topic I like to return to — and while you may get it, lots of others don’t. Thanks for the comment though.

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      1. Unfortunately the people who need to get it are the ones who don’t.

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  6. In 2008 someone noticed that a pair of unidentified bodies found in SC in August 1976 perfectly match a pair of desaparecidos abducted two months earlier during Argentina’s Dirty War. Same height, weight, age, hair, complexion, nose, earlobes, eye color for both of them. What are the odds?

    Is this news? Still no mention at all in any traditional media anywhere. Despite my queries to local and national newspapers, TV newsmagazines, etc.

    I am certain there is something to this and after reviewing hundreds of pages of texts, declassified memos, etc. have found how these cases could be connected. See the uncanny resemblances and background at my blog chaseofthecondor.blogspot.com.

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  7. The more I read about this issue the more I realize Twitter is an entirely new entity that defies definition by traditional terms. It’s not a news wire, but it has raw information first, and it can be both a news source and a news outlet depending on how you use it.

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  8. What you are referring to as news on Twitter is really just rumor. It becomes news when verified by trustworthy sources (more than one).

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  9. I trust Twitter more for my news. Dunno about elsewhere, but here in NZ news sources have become twisted opinion pieces and little more.

    The news you get via Twitter depends very much on the people or agencies you follow. I totally trust the people I follow.

    And the ideas referred to in the article belie the fact that traditional news agencies use twitter to break news. So the twitter network is just as valid a media for newsbreaking as anything else. Print media, of course, doesn’t break any news

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  10. Oh – and I forgot to mention. Things like the Christchurch earthquakes – you hear from people caught up in the event as it happens. You can’t get any more breaking than that.

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  11. Twitter is also excellent at starting and perpetuating rumors which is exactly why I wait to hear it from a trusted news source. Last month, the assassination of Kim Jong Un “broke” on twitter, but it wasn’t news at all. Just a rumor.

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  12. Matthew Hyde Friday, March 2, 2012

    Of course Twitter breaks news – it’s crazy to think that, say, an earthquake in New Zealand needs verifying by AP when half of Christchurch are tweeting that their homes are shaking.

    The problem is the signal to noise ratio – only recently Keanu Reeves and Rowan Atkinson have been reported to have died by tweeters. This was false. Paradoxically, Twitter’s strengths – speed and accessibility – are also the things that can hurt its credibility as a news source.

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  13. Stan Faryna Friday, March 2, 2012

    The argument, my dear Horatio, that relevance is decided by mainstream media’s confirmation of social news merely betrays the impoverished and medieval thinking that throws down such gauntlets. Petty fiefdoms serve little princes, indeed. The history of fiat currencies is one of failure.

    Stan Faryna
    http://www.twitter.com/#!/Faryna

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