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It’s not Twitter — this is just the way the news works now

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If it seems like just yesterday that we were talking about how error-prone Twitter and other social-media outlets were during a crisis, that’s because it was almost yesterday — Hurricane Sandy, the last event to really stress-test the accuracy of real-time citizen reporting and “networked journalism,” happened just six weeks ago. Now, the shooting of six adults and 20 children at an elementary school in Connecticut has raised many of the same issues, since Twitter was filled with inaccurate reports about the incident. For some, this proves that social media is not an appropriate tool for journalism, particularly real-time news reporting. But I think it shows something very different: I think this is just the way the news works now, and we had better get used to it.

Many of those criticizing the spread of false reports on Twitter seem to be drawing a firm line between the way that people behave on social networks and the way that “real” journalism is practiced by traditional news sources such as the New York Times or CNN. And yet, many traditional sources — including both of those trusted institutions, as well as plenty of other TV news programs — reported some or all of the same inaccurate news that swept through Twitter. On top of that, the two have become so intertwined that much of the news (both accurate and inaccurate) about the shootings that appeared on television likely started on Twitter or Facebook.


Twitter was wrong — but so were CNN and CBS

The most obvious example of how error-prone the reporting was by both traditional and non-traditional players was the identification of Ryan Lanza as the shooter, and the subsequent publicizing of the Facebook profile page of someone with the same name. For almost an hour, CNN was reporting Lanza as the suspect and showing a screenshot of his alleged Facebook page, until it suddenly stopped doing so. As it turned out, Ryan Lanza is the shooter’s brother, and the confusion may have arisen because Adam Lanza — the 20-year-old man whom officials say pulled the trigger at the school in Newtown, Conn. — was carrying identification that belonged to his brother.

The confusion over the shooter’s identity was just one of many examples of the false information that flowed freely during the incident: both the television news and social media also reported that Lanza walked into a school classroom and shot his mother, who was a teacher at the school — but it now appears that his mother was not a teacher at the school, and that she was shot at the home they shared in Newtown. It was also reported that Lanza used two, three, four and even five guns during the incident (police officials say that he had three — two handguns and a .223-caliber assault rifle).

fail stamp

Is social media responsible for these mistakes? Hardly. Most of them were reported by CNN and other traditional news sources as well, and in many cases Twitter users simply repeated them. Should they have verified the information before repeating it, as so many Twitter critics advise users to do? It’s hard to see how they could have done so, even if they wanted to. And to ask people to stop using Twitter or other social media during such an event seems naive at best — for better or worse, social networks are a crucial part of how we communicate now, and how we share both information and our emotional reaction to events like the Newtown shooting.

Even the attempt to “name and shame” the shooter by publicizing his Facebook page is a natural response to such a tragedy. Is it unfair when innocent people are identified in this way? Of course it is. And it would clearly be better if we could all wait before we do this, rather than jumping to conclusions — or if we could rely on Twitter and Facebook to implement solutions that somehow save us from ourselves — but that isn’t likely to happen either.


It’s not social media’s fault — real-time news is chaotic

One thing to remember is that the process of reporting news during a real-time event like a shooting has always been chaotic and riddled with inaccuracies: it’s the nature of the beast. In the case of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, the traditional methods of getting information from the area are frequently disrupted, which makes it even more difficult to determine what is accurate and what isn’t — and in the case of a shooting like Newtown, the amount of information available is extremely restricted, because police forces and other officials are reluctant to talk, and may not even have all of the relevant information themselves.

In the past, this chaotic process of journalistic sausage-making was kept mostly hidden from TV viewers and newspaper readers. Inside the newsrooms at these outlets, reporters and editors were frantically trying to collect information from wire services and other sources, verifying it and checking it as best they could, and then producing a report at some later point. The advent of 24-hour news shows like CNN removed part of the veil from this process, but social media has torn the veil away completely — now, real-time news reporting happens in full public view, and people like Andy Carvin of National Public Radio have actually made this approach their calling.


We can disagree about whether this is beneficial or not (I happen to believe that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, and that Twitter is to some extent a “self-cleaning oven”) but we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, any more than the music industry could somehow force people to stop copying mp3 files. The process of reporting news about a real-time event belongs to us all now — and that includes the armies who are fighting the wars that we are reporting on, as the recent social-media battle between Israel and Hamas showed — and so we had better figure out how to take advantage of it.

One way to do this is for journalists both pro and amateur to shift their skillset from simply reporting facts to assembling and/or fact-checking them, using the crowd for assistance as Carvin has, and focusing on the kind of approach taken by the BBC’s “user-generated content” desk and other innovative approaches to the process. In the end, we could wind up with not just a new way of building the news, but a dramatically better one.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Petteri Sulonen and Hans Gerwitz

35 Responses to “It’s not Twitter — this is just the way the news works now”

  1. Elvin Luku

    For the first part, it’s not true that “this is simply the way news works now”. Media is the news (McLuahn), that means, the same news it’s trasmitted in different ways from different kind of medias. The rest it’s ok

  2. Sean Morris

    This is a very insightful piece, but the perpetual inaccuracies perpetrated by click-happy twitizens cannot be justified. Reams of regurgitated information, right or wrong, plagues social media. Real Journalism, regardless of accuracy, costs money — it takes feet on the ground, face-to-face interviews, hounding phone calls, direct human interaction. As a journalist, I’m not allowed to disguise other writers’ reporting as my own, that would be plagiarism. The kerfuffle on social media surrounding the last two major national tragedies was not a stream of “real-time information,” it was a frantic postmodern hive mind.

  3. Drew Clark

    Agree it’s not Twitter’s fault…it’s Twitter’s users that many times are at fault for creating or passing along non-factual or misleading information. Is it not the responsibility of all of us to first verify facts before shouting them out to potentially millions of recipients who might make decisions based on what they see? I guess it’s also clear that on the receiving end of a Tweet we need to take what we see with a pound of salt, that the veracity of many such messages has not been checked. At least with the old, slow traditional media some level of fact-checking took place prior to sending out on the AP wire or publishing in print. Ditto for pre-cable TV news. But the fact that CNN and others in their race to “get it first” don’t practice proper fact-checking shouldn’t lower the bar for others, including Twitter users.

  4. AfonsoDuartePimenta

    “On top of that, the two have become so intertwined that much of the news (both accurate and inaccurate) about the shootings that appeared on television likely started on Twitter or Facebook.”
    Then: another reason to use it less if contaminates REAL newsrooms and REAL journalists

  5. AfonsoDuartePimenta

    “On top of that, the two have become so intertwined that much of the news (both accurate and inaccurate) about the shootings that appeared on television likely started on Twitter or Facebook.”
    Then: here is another reason to give less credit to it if contaminates REAL journalism

  6. Julian Sims

    Hopefully those who falsely identify innocent people as ‘perpetrators’ of crimes will think twice following the civil cases successfully brought by McAlpine – and those who claim that such acts are just a ‘price’ of ‘real-time flows’ will see that the real price is a hefty payment of damages. Probability reporting will hopefully be accompanied by probability of successful litigation! The best way to ensure that the professional media act professionally is for greater access to the law for innocent people slandered by shoddy reporting

  7. Tim Schreier

    I use Twitter and to some extent Facebook as an “Alert System”. It can offer a quick heads up to things that may catch my interest but then I go and do further investigation. The best analogy I can think of is walking down a street and you hear someone tell you there is a fire on the next block, you then go to do some investigative work on your own. If people rely on tweets for the entire story, they are going to be sadly disappointed. You get alerted but then take it to the next step.
    Tim Schreier New York, NY

  8. for ‘oldnewspaperman’


    This is a perfect example of why I made an immediate career change, after I got my degree in Journalism . What saddens me, is that the youngest generations will never know the truth and value of real news reporting.
    Our planet has become dependent on technology and social media for everything, including news, and most people probably don’t even care what the truths are, but yet everyone has an opinion. Twitter is an overinflated “soapbox”, and now it appears, everyone gets to have their moment……

  9. Bob Gourley

    Thank you Mathew for this context. One thing I like about real time citizen reporting is I can do my own all source analysis over that and get a sense of what is going on that is going to be less tainted than the news from sources that are there to sell TV ads. Every source has problems and biases and errors, but I sure like having real time citizen reporting in the mix.

  10. Ithaca Independent

    As professional journalists (traditionally trained, or not) we should not permit the growing belief among news consumers that getting the facts wrong — and publishing them — is simple SOP for today’s media. The advent of 24-hour news cycles, the increasing use of social media as an information source, and the destruction of the the editing layer which had prevented most reporting errors getting into print, are all to blame.

  11. I’ve already got to the point of both not believing a lot of what is said about ‘news’ on social, and I certainly don’t post (or retweet) anything I can’t find further, more solid, evidence about- it’s just too dodgy. In the UK we’ve already had a case of multiple accusations of paedophilia pointed at an innocent party, and now this false info about Ryan Lanza.

    This is too dodgy. Lives and reputations can be seriously damaged by this activity- it’s basically judgement by mob rule, and to hell with innocent until proved guilty. The rights of those who ‘need’ to tweet their idiocies are held to be more important than the rights of those accused.

    This isn’t good enough. Those who use social need to understand that this isn’t just a conversation between friends but a massive rumour amplification mill, and their behaviour can destroy lives.

    So don’t post until you know your stuff. Or be prepared to be sued right down the line for libel. Doing social doesn’t give you the right to throw mud at anyone with no just cause. Yet this is how people use it. And they believe this right- much like their ‘right’ to take content for free- trounces the rights of those accused, or the rights of the artist to be paid for their work.

    There’s far too much of this ‘the tech allows it, therefore it is ‘right” bullshit these days. Well, the tech exists- in the form of weapons- to kill 27 people in one day. But we don’t assume Adam Lanza had the right to shoot anyone.

    Nor does Twitter – by it’s very existence- justify the right of everyone to say what they please about anyone else, without checking their facts first. Those who do should have the full weight of the law smacked down hard on them, if they tweet bullshit.

    We created the tech, and we should all learn how to use it responsibly, and teach our children to as well. Or otherwise the tech just rules us.

  12. theothernotebook

    Matthew, I usually disagree with your opion of the future of the news media, but this time i agree. I’m a newspaper reporter who has covered breaking news stories, thankfully none as tragic as this one.
    The Internet, Twitter and Facebook have all increased the pace of news cycle and reporters and the public are still trying to adjust.
    The public has never been made privy to the sausage making part of the news and so they are shocked when a news source they have trusted in the past gets something wrong on a breaking story. They don’t realize the amount of bad information a reporter has to sift through in situations like these in order to get to the facts.
    That doesn’t absolve the media from re-checking information or correcting a story as soon as they find out their information is wrong or explaining where they got the bad information.
    From what I read about this school shooting, the misidentification of the shooter came from a police source. If reporters had told the public that “police are now reporting that x not y is the shooter” that might have gone a long way.
    As a reporter, I hate writing corrections. I hate admitting that I was wrong, which is what makes me work extra hard to make sure the information I have is correct before I write a story and if i goof up, to try and explain how I goofed.

  13. Oliver Schmid

    If it is something serious like the CT shooting I’d rather wait until all the facts are known and then conveyed in a responsible manner. Rather than getting rumors and half-truth only for the purpose to sensationalize an event.

  14. Rick Fischer

    The gist of this article is that “real” journalists should filter out the misinformation and report only the true facts. Well that sounds good, except that today journalists also filter out all facts that reflect badly on the President, the Democrats, the Progressives, and their other loves. The open reporting of these filtered facts is what has earned Fox News such hatred.

  15. Bobby Cherry

    As a journalist, I question the police and emergency authorities use of information. The media — everything from The Newtown Bee to CNN and the New York Times — all received information from local, state and federal authorities.

    When news organizations used “Ryan” as the shooter’s name, it was because a police official told them so. Is that wrong information? At this moment, yes. But in the moment, POLICE believed it to be accurate and told the media so.

    I grow tired of hearing people bash the media for doing its job. No story is clear while it’s happening. News consumers want news in the moment, but most news consumers have no idea how news works. They just react to what they see or read.

    And, sadly, people now believe *anybody*. So Joe Shmoe down the road who tweets now is a believable source by news consumers.

    If anything, this proves that no matter how great police think their crisis communication plan is, it’s really not. Likewise for news consumers and news organizations.

    We have to accept that moments, hours, days after an event, information still is being processed.

  16. Mathew, Insightful discussion.
    Unfortunately, we are dealing with “probability news” now. Quoting @MargaretAtwood, it “means that you don’t know whether it is true or not, it probably is true, but then again, probably not. Everything is now gossip around the village pump.“
    I wonder what and if CBC is doing anything like BBC’s “user-generated content” desk (which I am not familiar with). I personally find Wikipedia a nice starting point for fact-supported breaking news. It is an easy place to start reading the original news source some claims were based on. And sometimes, I will some additional news sources to the articles to make them better.

  17. Aldrin Menezes

    Real time or any other news from responsible journalists comes with a commitment for real information while any one can open a social media account and say anything in order to create a sensation

  18. oldnewspaperman

    Twitter is not a self-cleaning oven, the way that any rumor is not cleansed by a correction. Once the mistake is retweeted, it takes on a life of its own. Matthew is wrong. This is not the future of news. It is the future of crap that pretends to be news.

  19. Great points as always, and I’d like to suggest there’s a middle ground, too. At Breaking News, we move faster and yet provide a layer of verification and transparency over the top. If our traffic is any indication, we believe there’s a need in the marketplace for a mix of speed, source-agnostic curation and credibility.

  20. Scallywagandvagabond

    Breaking news reveals that Adam Lanza had vociferous arguments with 3 of the 4 deceased teachers a day before at the school. It is not understood at present the nature or why the arguments even took place, although it is known the 4th teacher survived because they failed to turn up to class which implies Lanza had a real beef to deal with as now investigators believe the altercation inspired Lanza to come back the following day to unleash his venom….

  21. It’s hilarious how journalists see Twitter and how serious they take it.
    Other that that your opinion is quite shocking.
    The pro media is supposed to have ethics and ,well, be pro, yet in their race for audience the quality of the reporting is dropping and standards are lowered.

    “Even the attempt to “name and shame” the shooter by publicizing his Facebook page is a natural response to such a tragedy.Is it unfair when innocent people are identified in this way?”
    Really,are you saying mob lynching is ok? Lynching the wrong guy is not but to hell with the guilty one, it’s not like we have laws to punish him.Endorsing or encouraging this kind of mentality is not ok , at least in a civilized world and we should at least try to pretend that we are that.

  22. Terry Heaton

    Great piece, Mathew. When I first began writing about Continuous News (before Twitter), I noted that it was, in fact, the news gathering process made public. Anybody who’s worked in a newsroom knows that during spot news, mistakes frequently accompany facts as the news organization tries to figure out what’s happening. Make that public, and the same thing is bound to occur. I think it’s just the price of real-time flows and streams of information. Frankly, to expect the same vetting that finished product news produces in a stream of real-time information is really ignorant.

    • Thanks, Terry — totally agree. In fact, I would argue we are better off with the news process we have now than we were before. Now at least we can all see the errors happening in real time, and they can be corrected in real time.

      • Steffen Konrath

        Making “the news gathering process… public,” what is that good for? And what are the benefits you did not mention, when you write “we are better off with the news process we have now than we were before. Now at least we can all see the errors happening in real time, and they can be corrected in real time”?
        – Steffen

      • I think those are the main benefits — the transparency is the biggest one, so that we can all see who is arriving at what information and how. I think it’s better to have that occur out in the open rather than behind closed doors.

      • Joe Sanchez

        What does it mean to correct errors in “real time?” How do we see **and know** what “errors [are] happening in real time?” So far, it appears that the people who are first correcting these news errors are the ones being **incorrectly** identified as the perpetrators of these crimes.

        A news error, once reported, is going to be disseminated very quickly given the proliferation of social media today. There is no “correction of errors in real time;” that’s a sound bite that has no practical meaning.

        Go back to the timeline of the Connecticut school shootings. It took *hours* before news report errors were *fully* corrected. In some cases, the errors went thru various iterations before the actual facts were reported.

        Take the case of the shooter’s mother. At first it was reported that she was a teacher and was killed at the school. Then there were reports that she was not a full-time teacher but only a part-time teacher. Then it was reported that the shooter’s brother had been found dead at home. Then it was correctly reported that the mother was the one found dead at her home and later, correctly reported that she was not a teacher at the school.

        As another example, major news media that heard the shooter’s name, in their eagerness to be “the first to report,” looked on Facebook for a name and locale match and reported that person to be the shooter. It turns out they were wrong, just as the news media were wrong in initially reporting who the shooter was in the “Batman” movie theater shootings. Furthermore, in this case, it turns out that authorities and the media got the name of the Connecticut shooter wrong and some hours passed before that was corrected.

        People (non-news professionals who communicate news and information via social media) should understand and practice the basic tenets of professional news reporting. For starters, this means realizing that the first information coming from incidents like these may be incorrect.

        People should be skeptical about passing along information such as names in the first minutes and hours after incidents like these. There is no substitution for practicing the principles of professional news reporting; one doesn’t have to be a professional news reporter to understand what these are.

        The “new normal” should not be about passing along information without critically thinking what the ramifications could be if that information turns out to be incorrect. We have a fundamental responsibility as citizens to understand what we choose to communicate.