Twitter as media: What happens when anyone can publish?

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We often take for granted what Twitter and other social-media tools offer in terms of instant publishing, until someone live-tweets a historic event like the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound or a congressman torpedoes his political career with an ill-advised photo. In another example of the power of instantaneous publishing, a woman in Florida who was raped posted messages about her attacker and the incident to Twitter — raising questions about how the traditional media should handle such an event, and reinforcing how the way we consume news and information is changing.

The victim, whose name appears on her Twitter profile, posted a message about the attack within minutes of it happening, describing the man who raped her and the vehicle he was driving. She followed that up with several other tweets about her physical and mental state as a result of the attack. She even posted a message from the back of a police car as she was being taken to the hospital by the police. Eventually, the Florida authorities asked that she stop posting messages relating to the details of the actual crime, presumably because they might affect the investigation of it.

As Mallary Jean Tenore and Kelly McBride note in a piece at the Poynter Institute website, this kind of real-time reporting by someone involved in a potential news story can make things very complicated for the mainstream media. Should newspapers and wire services have used the woman’s name? Typically, those kinds of details aren’t released by the police and other agencies involved in a sex crime — but what if the victims release names themselves? The woman in this case has said several times on Twitter that she had no real expectation of privacy when she posted the messages, nor did she mind people writing about it (although she did ask later that the Poynter piece not use her full name).

Using Twitter during such a sensitive personal incident may look like just another example of social-media “oversharing,” but the victim said she specifically decided to continue talking about her rape despite the police request because she thought it might help other women who had also been involved in sex crimes. She also said many people contacted her saying they had been, but were afraid to talk about it (she also said that one of her main concerns about her name being used was that the reports would follow her whenever someone searched for her name in Google). She told Poynter:

Many of my close friends and I communicate via Twitter. It was a way to reach out quickly to a large number of people who had the potential to have information or the ability to help. People I have never spoken with before have sent their support via Twitter. I could not have gained that through any traditional means of communication.

In a media-related sense, this is another example of what programmer and media theorist Dave Winer has called “the sources going direct,” meaning that a potential source for a news story — someone directly involved in an incident, or someone with a newsworthy opinion about an event — publishes their thoughts on Twitter or Facebook or in a blog post, without waiting for a reporter to interview them. Billionaire Mark Cuban became well-known for doing this after interviews with journalists, posting his own thoughts and email responses as a way of setting the record straight. But Twitter allows anyone to publish while an event is occurring.

On the one hand, that can provide different viewpoints on a news event — including those of the victim or victims, those of the police (who have started to use social media for their own purposes), as well as bystanders and so on. While that can be valuable because readers no longer have to rely on a single “official” version of events, however, it can also be difficult to pull together all these different viewpoints and make sense of them (the BBC has been experimenting with new ways of showing a story with multiple conflicting viewpoints).

That’s one reason why I’ve argued that we need more people collecting and curating and making sense of these kinds of stories — whether they are professional journalists or amateurs, or even people who don’t see themselves as journalists at all. We need more ways of curating and making sense of real-time news now that it is coming at us from dozens or even hundreds of different directions.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user George Kelly

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