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Twitter, Reddit and the newsroom of the future

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By now, many people are becoming used to Twitter as a source of breaking news, whether it’s a report about the death of Osama bin Laden or details about the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt. But it’s still fascinating to come across new examples of how the real-time information network can be used to report on a breaking news story, whether by professional journalists or those committing what Andy Carvin of NPR has called “random acts of journalism.” In one recent case, a member of Reddit pulled together a news report about a shooting in Toronto, including the tweets of those who attended and later became victims of the incident — another sign of how social media is changing both the way we consume and the way we produce journalism.

According to a number of news reports, the shooting took place late Monday night in a suburb of Toronto called Scarborough, at a house party attended by an estimated 250 people. By the end of the incident, two people were dead and more than 20 others were wounded. Within a matter of hours, a user at Reddit who goes by the handle “BitchSlappedByLogic” had posted a description of the events leading up to the party as well as the aftermath — and even some information about the background of those involved and their apparent gang affiliations.

The Twitter-sourced report is easier to verify

The entire report was compiled via Twitter, with links to individual tweets by someone who said he was the host of the party, as well as a teenaged girl who was one of those killed in the shooting:

Apparently, it was this guy’s party, as he says here. He’d been planning this party since July 7th. This guy apparently anticipated that problems might happen at the party. This girl, too. This guy too. So this could be the result of a pretty well-known beef. This person was shot. As was this person. This person was also shot — twice. This person was also shot, according to this tweet. This may be her in recovery, though I can’t be sure.

It’s interesting to look at the Reddit report, and then compare that to a traditional news report from the CBC (the publicly-funded broadcaster in Canada). The one on Reddit doesn’t look or read anything like a normal news story — instead of names, it has links to tweets and individual Twitter accounts, and there isn’t much of a story at all, just a recitation of facts or alleged facts. The CBC story has the names and ages of the victims, as well as some quotes from the police about gang violence, a quote from a friend of one of the deceased, and some eyewitness reports from the scene.

That said, however, the Reddit version also has a lot of things the CBC version doesn’t: for example, it has some tweets from people attending the party about the potential for violence — before the shooting even occurs. It also uses messages posted by those involved to talk about the shooting being part of a possible gang war, including links to individual tweets from people threatening more violence, as well as tweets and YouTube videos posted by members of a gang that one of the victims was apparently associated with.

While the format of the Reddit story may be more difficult to read, it also makes the story a lot easier to fact-check while you are reading, since any reader can simply click on a link and see the message or user profile that the author is basing their statement on (in one case, the Reddit post has a link to a screen-capture of a tweet that has since been removed). The CBC story has no links whatsoever. And while the traditional news story simply makes statements without providing any evidence other than an interview with police, the Redditor uses words like “apparently” and “I can’t be sure.”

Twitter isn’t a newswire, it’s a newsroom

The approach that Reddit took in this case reminded me of the way that Andy Carvin used his Twitter account as a kind of live-streaming news channel during the uprising in Egypt. In an interview with me at the Mesh conference in Toronto earlier this year, Carvin talked about how he saw his Twitter followers as his newsroom — in the sense that they helped him filter through and verify information from a number of different sources within that country, disproving or verifying videos, photos and other news. As he put it:

I get uncomfortable when people refer my twitter feed as a newswire. It’s not a newswire. It’s a newsroom. It’s where I’m trying to separate fact from fiction, interacting with people. That’s a newsroom.

While the Reddit report doesn’t do this (although commenters do fact check comments from the police), it’s easy to see how it could be the foundation of exactly that kind of process — one in which anyone, journalist or not, can contribute information that can then be verified or pulled together into a story. Imagine how much better the CBC story could have been if it had made use of some of the background and linking practices that you see in the Reddit post, or if the two had worked together, and you get some idea of what the newsroom of the future looks like.

Mark Little of Storyful, which works with mainstream media outlets to do exactly that kind of thing, has written about how journalists need to stop seeing themselves as gatekeepers of information and start to look at journalism as a collaborative effort involving all kinds of different sources. Twitter is clearly one of these sources, as the Toronto shooting shows — and so is Reddit, which has already proven in the past that it can be a crowdsourced fact-checking engine. And those who learn how to make use of all these tools will wind up producing better journalism.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Juerg Vollmer and See-ming Lee

14 Responses to “Twitter, Reddit and the newsroom of the future”

  1. johnquindell

    The internet can be considered a complete source of information about the world only to the extent that it is able to gather complete information. We ought to ask what of importance is not being recorded and how to fill the gap. Compiling tweets from participants/witnesses to an event is one way of doing so.

    An interesting way of collecting information on attitudes and events that usually go unrecorded was experimented with on the campus of the University of Washington last year. It involved one person standing next to signs with different things written on them and then recording the interpretations of and discussions about the signs by the people who came up to him. One particularly interesting set of discussions was generated by his sign: “DOES THE INTERNET KNOW MORE THAN YOU?” ( Other provocative signs he held up included: “THE DECEIVED ARE COMPLICIT IN THEIR DECEPTION”, “I AM NOT GAY”, “IN HITLER’S GERMANY UNIVERSITIES WERE SILENT”, “IS THIS SIGN ANTI-SEMITIC?”, “IS STANDING HERE WITH THIS SIGN A RADICAL ACT?” and “THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU.”

    Passersby now have a voice.”

  2. Tell it like it is

    Just make sure the newsroom of the future isn’t Topix. What was assumed to be citizen journalists, is all too easy, to forge and use as a method of oppression. A method of disinformation.
    Slander is not news. Journalism is important, it keeps the public safe.

  3. Mark Adams

    How can journalists (“gatekeepers”) ever (a) picture themselves not as gatekeepers and (b) execute on a strategy which renders their gatekeeping useless? No, it’s far simpler: Journalism is a gatekeeper, a bottleneck which simply isn’t required any more. Suggest journalists get new jobs.

  4. Tim Dickinson

    Social media is a great way to follow the accounts from those involved as it happened. You get a “live” feeling, and the context it gives is impressive.

    I don’t see such factual sourcing/storyboarding to replace journalism by any means, but when done properly as in this case and a lot of the content on Global Voices and I’d like to say some on The Descrier (note: my startup) – then it can certainly add a new dimension to the debate. As you say, letting people see the sources directly through twitter embeds and the like is almost better than an interview in some ways because it is only edited by the author.

  5. It is a fascinating concept that news articles themselves are becoming crowdsourced. With the vast amount of raw unprocessed data, a journalists job is now about guiding users through the data to take away meaningful insight, rather than just directly passing on the news. I would like to bring michael van poppel to the authors attention. He founded the Breaking news organisation, BNO, in his bedroom in 2007. now owned by MSNBC, it was a real success story in twitter based journalism.

    However the downside with all the citizen journalists, genuine fact checking and verification are becoming harder and harder to achieve. Unfortunately in todays world of the internet as a global extelligence, regurgitation of in vogue political opinion and bias from popular sources is often mistaken for a true understanding of a subject. Reading a few wikipedia entries does not make you an expert. Without a sustantial education within a subject, profound understanding is often lacking. This leads to a shortfall of original thinking and discussion, which is a fundementally negative prospect.

    This problem is not limited to journalism, but to help and discussion forum’s also. Universities are suffering as their students look to common resources and limit their information pool; as vast as the internet is, very little of all written non-fiction is available. people will pull references that are cited in wikipedia articles without ever reading the volume and evaluating for themselves the validity and context of the source. This too is dangerous.

    My personal solution is to read, as much and as broadly as I can, in the hope of gaining some additional perspective that may help my research, understanding, and ability to debate wholly a subject without sticking to classical arguments. It is in this that I can hope to contribute something genuinely original to the world.

    • Dan L.

      “Unfortunately in todays world of the internet as a global extelligence, regurgitation of in vogue political opinion and bias from popular sources is often mistaken for a true understanding of a subject. ”

      How is that any different from yesterday? or the day before? Stupid people predate the internet by several thousand years at least.

      The stories everyone “knows” about Columbus are mostly cribbed from Washinton Irving’s fictionalized biography of the man. If Irving had blogged it 200 years later instead at least there would have been a comment thread pointing out stuff like “Uh, the globe was invented in 1492…pretty sure Isabella already knew the world was round.”

      Multiple perspectives give people the chance to make up their own minds. That is much better than the 20th century system of a few government-subsidized media monopolies dictating what you are allowed to believe.

  6. BreakingTorontoNews

    One reason why people follow dry local news like car crashes and shootings, and more seamy stuff like arrests and police reports is curiousity; they want to confirm whether they know any of the people involved. The compilation of news from social feeds will expand as more people realize they can connect the dots to events happening around them.

    • Q3 technologies

      Rightly said. People want to hear new that they can make sense of. The way it is presented is also very important though. We can see how news is getting more and more social with time. Twitter is now the biggest source of real time information.

  7. Sandman619

    In the early days of the Internet, journalists were using posts from the Internet as though they were fact-checked, when in fact, they weren’t. After making several retractions caused by the belief that Internet sourced information was in any way reliable, the credible newsrooms adopted a policy of fact check anything posted on the net. While it’s tempting to base credibility on a single incident, it’s important to note that journalists & news organizations are tasked with the very important job of providing factual, reliable news. Twitter users are not. This will be realized when the next Aspartame causes cancer report comes from a Twitter post

    Note: Aspartame is an artificial sweetener, which causes cancer only on the Internet. Not, apparently, in the real world

    Cheers !