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If you don’t like the chaos of breaking news, you should probably stay off Twitter

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Another breaking news event — in this case, the crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214, which broke apart while landing at San Francisco airport on Saturday morning — sparks more criticism (primarily on Twitter, of course) about how Twitter is a haven for errors and unfounded speculation, and how people seem compelled to retweet things during these events even if they have no knowledge of whether they are true or not. To some, including regular readers of GigaOM, this won’t come as any surprise. Welcome to the way the news works now.

We saw similar criticisms and debates about the value of Twitter as a news medium during the Boston bombings, Hurricane Sandy, the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school, and pretty much every other major news event that has happened over the past several years. At some point during the action, someone will complain about how many mistakes there are circulating on Twitter, and others will argue that we should all just refrain from tweeting or retweeting anything — or perhaps just wait until later and buy a newspaper.

Twitter was made for real-time news

This kind of sentiment is all well and good, and perhaps it would be better in some sense if people could wait until the official investigators file a report about what happened, so that we could all get the full story at once. But that’s not the way the news works, and in fact never has been — and certainly not since the advent of 24-hour news channels like CNN. All Twitter has done is increase the amplitude, and given anyone the same tools to watch the news unfold that were previously restricted to journalists.

The reality is that a breaking news event like a plane crash or a bombing is an inherently chaotic situation, and no one really has a firm command of the facts, including the first responders and emergency workers who are on the scene and talking about the event on the police scanner. That maelstrom of conflicting information used to be hidden behind the walls of the command station or the walls of the newspaper and TV newsrooms reporting on the event — but now, thanks to Twitter, it is everywhere.

News sources are everywhere now

The crash of Asiana Flight 214 on Saturday was a perfect example of this in action, and in some ways it also harkened back to one of the first breaking news events that many people associate with Twitter: namely, the landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, a dramatic story that was illustrated by a single picture posted via Twitpic of the plane sitting in the water — a picture taken by Janis Krums, who happened to be on a commuter ferry that was diverted to help rescue the passengers.

In a similar way, one of the iconic photos of the Asiana flight was the shot taken by a passenger on the downed plane, Samsung executive David Eun, who posted it first to Path (a social network designed for use with a small group of friends, founded by former Facebook staffer Dave Morin) and then shared it to Twitter. Other bystanders also posted dramatic photos of the damaged plane surrounded by flames and billowing smoke.

Create your own real-time news story

As more than one person pointed out during the incident (on Twitter, of course) there was far more real-time information available on Twitter than there was on any news network, including CNN, which was busy interviewing people sitting at the lunch counter in the San Francisco airport while actual eyewitnesses were sharing their updates on Twitter, complete with photos and video. This is what journalists and media theorists mean when they talk about “citizen journalism” or “the sources going direct.”

And while critics seem to see Twitter as an endlessly gullible transmitter of questionable news, it’s worth noting that much of the information being passed around by these eyewitnesses was questioned on Twitter, including reports that the plane had cartwheeled after hitting the ground, which part of the plane hit first, whether it was pilot error, and so on. In fact, there was probably more informed debate on many of those issues than there was on CNN or any other news channel, since aviation experts got involved and links to supporting information was posted by a number of observers.

News sources aren’t restricted to eyewitnesses or armchair experts either: in an interesting twist, the National Transportation Safety Board — which is investigating the crash — started posting photos of the crash site and the ruined airplane on Twitter within hours of the accident, including pieces of the fuselage, landing gear that had been separated from the plane, etc. In effect, anyone following the event in real time has had as much or more information than they could have gotten from any traditional news source.

Were mistakes and errors retweeted during the aftermath of the crash? Almost certainly there were — but just as mainstream news outlets like the New York Times and CNN made mistakes in their initial reports and then corrected them over time, so did Twitter, as more information was added by eyewitnesses, journalists, “citizen reporters” and other sources. That kind of chaos isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoy watching the news about an event take shape in real time, there is nothing like it.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Dirk Ercken

7 Responses to “If you don’t like the chaos of breaking news, you should probably stay off Twitter”

  1. G. Trelis

    People re-tweet unsubstantiated comments, because they don’t possess the critical nous to question what they read. It’s a product of the Left’s destruction of state education.

  2. Interesting that we measure Twitter’s discursive impact by how it works within or around the periphery of news.

    We’ve become so accustomed to the higher authority of this media form, that it’s a perennial yard stick.

    But news had its own huge problems e.g. dwindling audiences circa 1980s before twitter and the social avalanche came.

    I like the title of this “If you don’t like the chaos of breaking news, you should probably stay off Twitter” , because twitter never signed up to be a news service. If you want one of these policed by journalists, who are limited in number etc, you’d do well to subscribe to an agency.

    Philosophy students will chuckle at all of this. Foucault’s discursive formations at play again.

    Here an institution takes on a form and makes it its own. In ten years time a generation will think Twitter was built by journalists. Really !

    What’s the evidence? Another discursive form videojournalism. Many think it was created by TV news broadcaster. It wasn’t. But Foucault turned in his grave again

    In 1994 when videojournalism was launched in the UK, it took at least ten years before the sniping stopped. Twitter, the CB Radio of teletext is only doing what its designed to do.

    We sentients attach conventional values and misplaced meanings, when perhaps we shouldn’t

    David Dunkley Gyimah

  3. Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare masterplan Universal Credit was originally due to apply to all new claimants of out of work benefits from this October but with the project now regarded as doomed in Whitehall, the government has made a dramatic (and under-reported) retreat. It announced today that UC would be introduced in just six “hub jobcentres” – Hammersmith, Rugby, Inverness, Harrogate, Bath and Shotton, alongside the existing four “pathfinders”.

    This means that a project that has so far cost £420m will now apply to just ten job centres, less than 1.5 per cent of the total. In addition, the only group of claimants included will be single people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. As Glenda Jackson noted at today’s work and pensions select committee hearing, “The people you are actually testing are a small number, the simplest of cases. How an earth are you going to achieve the evidence that you keep telling us you are going to learn from when the cohort is so narrow and so simple?”

    Duncan Smith told the committee that he was merely following advice from MPs “not to go too fast” but as Labour chair Anne Begg replied, “There’s rushing it and there’s a snail pace”.

    Having once promised a welfare revolution, it is clear that the government’s priority is now damage limitation.

  4. I agree; there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. So where does that leave the news media in the fray? I think that to be relevant and helpful in the chaos, media organizations need to step up their game and do a better job of curating, fact-checking and explaining the fast-moving information. As a consumer, I’d like to see more “here’s what we know now” stories as news breaks. Providing background and perspective is what news organizations do well. Perhaps, “context is king” should be the rallying cry going forward with regard to breaking news.

  5. Morgan

    I say again, readers must be more discerning if they get their news initially from Twitter, The Dredge Report, Huffington Post, MSNBC, FOX , CNBC, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, the Vatican and on and on. There is really no ‘true’ initial reporting. First on the scene and so-called eye witness accounts are simply repeated by local news, Twitter and FB friends who want to the first to ‘ the spead word’. Then comes the main stream media with second hand infomation.

    I listen to these things but draw no conclusions. Depending on the news event, the time for accurate reporting varies. Reporting tragedies such as Flight 214 begin to coalesce a bit faster than say the Boston Marathon bombing. To state the obvious the more complicated the event the more inaccurate the initial reporting. And the more revisions of the revisions that have to be revised.

  6. Well put, Matthew. Thanks.

    “perhaps it would be better in some sense if people could wait until the official investigators file a report about what happened”

    I would add that even “official investigators” are sometimes reporting falsehoods.