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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.