Twitter shows how the news is made, and it’s not pretty — but it’s better that we see it

Citizen journalism

Not long after the Boston Marathon bombings occurred on Monday afternoon, several Twitter users noted that these kinds of real-time news events illustrate how incredible the service is as a source of breaking news, but at the same time how terrible it is.

Sure enough, there were plenty of fake news reports to go around on Monday, from reports of suspicious vehicles to the arrest of alleged perpetrators — just as there were during superstorm Sandy and the school shootings in Connecticut. But does that invalidate Twitter as a news source? And should the service try harder to filter out bad information and highlight verified news reports? I think the answer to both of these questions is the same: No.

Erik Wemple of the Washington Post noted that in some cases Twitter can act as a “news ombudsman,” pointing out that there were a number of people advising caution in the tweeting and re-tweeting of details about the blasts, although Wemple may also have been following more members of the media than the average person (ironically, some criticized Wemple himself for being too quick to post his thoughts about Twitter use during the aftermath of the bombings).

This in itself illustrates one of the problems with Twitter as a news-delivery vehicle, which is that no one can agree on the proper behavior during such events — or at least not enough people to make it worthwhile. When (if ever) is it too soon to speculate about the source of the attack or details like the number of wounded? Which sources are reliable and which aren’t when it comes to retweeting? Does everything have to be verified? Is it okay to retweet graphic videos and photos?

Journalism in real time, with all its flaws

These are all the same challenges that breaking-news outlets like CNN face, but they have teams of seasoned editors to make those decisions (and still often get them wrong — perhaps even as wrong as Twitter does). Twitter has nothing but a short attention span, a hair trigger and a couple of buttons that say “tweet” and “retweet,” and they are all too easy to push. Should more people think twice before they click them? Undoubtedly. Will they? Probably not.

That said, however, there’s no question that Twitter is one of the best tools for breaking-news delivery since the telegraph. Unfortunately, it is also a great tool for distributing lies, speculation, innuendo, hoaxes and every other form of inaccurate information. I’ve argued before that this is just the way the news works now — the news wire and police scanner are no longer available only to journalists, but to anyone who cares to listen. And so is the ability to republish.

Should Twitter do more to verify sources, or highlight accurate information, as some have suggested? It’s an appealing idea. The service could try to use geotagging to identify those who are close to the scene, or some other method to determine credibility — something third-party services like Sulia and Storyful also try to do through a variety of methods. But is that really Twitter’s place?

Leave verification to the journalists

Why don’t we get YouTube to verify the source of videos as well, like the ones that are posted from Syria or Egypt? Or get Google to sort the news it pulls in based on the likelihood of it being credible? The simplest answer is that this isn’t what those services are for — they are distribution engines, or pipes (a series of tubes, if you will). Asking them to become news entities is a little like asking AT&T to eavesdrop on phone calls in order to figure out who is a terrorist.

Rather than relying on Twitter to do this, I think it’s far better to accept the somewhat chaotic nature of the medium, and rely on journalists — and not just the professional kind, but the amateur kind as well — to filter that information in real time, the way Andy Carvin did during the Arab Spring (by using Twitter as a crowdsourced newsroom) and others did during Sandy and the Colorado shootings. Over time, I believe, Twitter becomes a kind of self-cleaning oven, as writer Sasha Frere-Jones put it.

Sure, it’s messy and erratic, but that’s because it is made of human beings. Traditional media is like that too, we just rarely see it happening out in the open. But I believe that having it happen out in the open is ultimately better than keeping it behind closed doors.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen

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