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

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