There’s been a lot written since the horrific events of last weekend about what the media should or shouldn’t have done in trying to cover the shootings at the Sandy Hook elementary school — and in particular, about the numerous errors that were published and re-published about almost every element of the incident. But only Michael Wolff, a media gadfly and blogger for The Guardian, singled out National Public Radio staffer Andy Carvin for specific ridicule and condemnation. In Wolff’s view, Carvin went too far in repeating erroneous reports during his real-time curation of news about the event — but is that a fair criticism? And what should he have done differently, if anything?
Among other things, Wolff tries hard to cast aspersions on Carvin’s approach to Twitter-based journalism in a number of ways. For example, he points out that the NPR staffer is not actually a journalist — in the sense that he was not trained as one, and was working on the digital side for the public broadcaster before he started using Twitter to report on the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. For what it’s worth, Carvin himself has made no secret of the fact that he isn’t a professional journalist by training, and prefers to refer to himself as a “news DJ” or “social historian.”
Does real-time verification create confusion?
Apart from the ad hominem attacks (including a somewhat bizarre criticism of Carvin for becoming emotional about the news events he covers on Twitter), Wolff’s main point seems to be that the NPR reporter spread as many errors as he debunked during his coverage of the Sandy Hook shootings. To Wolff, this makes Carvin’s justification of his duties — in other words, his argument that he is crowdsourcing the verification of news as it is happening, and has to repeat errors in order to correct them — highly suspect. As Wolff describes it in his post:
“While claiming not to retweet most of what he finds, because of its questionable provenance, he nevertheless tweeted a rather broad range of bollocks… while the guise is to retweet in order to verify, the effect is to propagate.”
Wolff may be the loudest or the rudest voice expressing this opinion, but he is far from the only one: in addition to public criticism from journalists such as Heidi Moore of The Guardian and Wall Street Journal editor Bradley Davis about the process of public verification via Twitter, I have also seen the same kind of comments eslewhere, and have gotten similar ones via email and Twitter direct messages from professional reporters and media insiders. The common complaint is that Carvin repeated too many erroneous reports — of which there were many — and didn’t do enough to make it clear he was debunking them.
Twitter as a crowdsourced newsroom
Is there any substance to those criticisms? Perhaps, but not as much as Wolff and some others make out. Although Carvin is one of the media sources I follow, I saw as many errors and false reports coming from other journalists — including professional sources such as CNN and CBS News — as I did from Carvin. Were any of the ones he mentioned particularly egregious? Wolff in particular mentions a report about a purple van that may or may not have contained an alleged co-conspirator, as well as a tweet about a letter that was supposedly written by a child and turned out not to be real.
Since Wolff singled me out in his post as Carvin’s “defender,” I should reiterate that I am a fan of how Carvin — professional journalist or not — uses Twitter, and of how he conducted what was more or less a live class in real-time news verification and crowdsourcing during the uprisings of the Arab Spring (and yes, I wrote a post arguing that he should have won a Pulitzer prize for doing so). I also consider him a friend, and have talked with him on a number of occasions about the implications of what he does and how he does it, including at the Mesh conference in Toronto.
By definition, using Twitter as a “crowdsourced newsroom” — as Carvin has described it — for a breaking-news event has a number of risks. One is that because the verification of details occurs in full public view, all of the errors also appear there; and since Twitter is a stream of short messages, some of those who see the original mistake being posted may take it as fact, and not see the follow-up messages that either confirm or debunk it. One way to help assuage that problem is to collect them all using a tool like Storify, which Carvin has done for the Sandy Hook shootings, but even that is imperfect.
Since Twitter messages are so short, it’s impossible for the NPR digital strategist (his official title) to insert clarifications about what he is doing into every tweet — although he does mention his approach frequently, and has said that he plans to have a longer blog post or some kind of description of what he does available to link to, as a way of preventing some confusion.
The benefits outweigh the disadvantages
That said, however, I believe that the benefits of the process that Carvin uses outweigh the risks. Critics like the Wall Street Journal‘s Davis would like us to return to the days when breaking news — with all of the bumps and flaws that Jack Shafer notes have been with us since the earliest days of the modern news business — was kept hidden inside professional newsrooms, where editors could take their time checking and re-checking information and then produce an artifact at some pre-determined point that would wrap things up in a neat little bow for mass consumption by an audience.
As I argued in another recent post about Sandy Hook and the future of news, I think those days are gone, whether we like it or not. I’m not suggesting that we just ignore mistakes, or shrug our shoulders when errors are repeated on Twitter or anywhere else. At least Carvin is trying to fact-check in real-time on the same platform that is distributing many of the mistakes, which is more than many traditional outlets do, and we can all see it happening and — even participate.
As Craig Silverman of Regret The Error has noted in a post at Poynter, we should probably all be more careful about what we distribute and when — both professional and non-professional journalists. After all, we are all in this thing together now.
Update: Andy Carvin has responded to Wolff’s blog post as well, with a Storify post that goes through the Guardian columnist’s claims and criticisms one by one, with tweets included for reference.