During its infancy Twitter was widely regarded as an obscure digital community for social media geeks and early technology adopters intent on sharing personal musings, self-indulgent daily affirmations and random brain farts. Undoubtedly the informal chatter is still a prevalent force, but Twitter has now entered into the realm of political influence and top breaking news.
The latter was demonstrated by the sudden news of Whitney Houston’s death on February 11th via Tweets surfacing almost a full 1/2 hour before the mainstream press began picking up the story. While not exactly a new phenomenon this (yet again) illustrates the incredible speed with which events unfold on Twitter, aided in part by the proliferation of smartphones connected to the Net and the growing number of Twitter users with hyper-active thumbs.
On another level, the question that is perhaps vexing editorial directors throughout the media world: has Twitter, and to a larger extent social media, finally supplanted television, radio, and print media as the dominant conduit for breaking news and information?
Twitter has become so fast and effective a means for breaking stories, the BBC and Sky News have reportedly implemented a policy mandating their journalists release news details internally first. That is, file copy among colleagues before venturing onto Twitter.
Established news outlets are clearly looking to cement their place among the micro-blogging communities. Twitter has caused some journalists to adopt a Tweet first, ask questions and write a thoughtful well researched piece later. Though others, like John Plunkett of the Guardian UK, are beginning to question this trend:
Is it right, for instance, to break news on Twitter before it reaches any broadcast outlets?
We are all feeling our way forward through the fog of this new media landscape. The social media revolution is changing power structures in newsrooms, allowing young journalists who understand this new world – and a few older ones – to build reputations independent of their own organisations.
Some would like to turn the clock back to a simpler time, when all power resided in the newsdesk, only star reporters got a byline, and sharing information with outsiders before the presses rolled or the bulletin began was a sacking offence.
But it is almost certainly too late for that.
A popular argument among social media proponents is that Twitter and modern blogging platforms highlight some glaring inefficiencies of the pre-digital age of news gathering. Namely that it was a slow and cumbersome system that relied on a few isolated channels of communication. Now these old analog channels of distribution must adapt to a culture of immediacy where the über-connected sect crave—and now expect—headline news as it happens, not at 6, 9 or 11pm in compartmentalized chunks.
A dramatization of this scenario plays out as an interesting subplot in the film Contagion. Jude Law’s character Alan Krumwiede, a journalist and renegade blogger, encounters opposition in the form of editorial barriers by his superiors as he attempts to break news of a deadly virus outbreak. In citing YouTube material, his television editor casts a shadow of doubt on the authenticity of the footage, thus forcing Krumwiede’s hand into leaking the story on his blog (and presumably onto his public Twitter account).
Here the implied dubiousness of the YouTube footage in the film is symbolic of digital media’s lack of maturity and acceptance as a credible source of information. In the same way, vaguely reminiscent of a university professor’s weariness of accepting Wikipedia citations as part of an essay submission.
In another scene Krumwiede approaches Dr. Ian Sussman, a virus vaccine researcher played by Elliot Gould, who learns of Krumwiede’s theories but quickly dismisses him (and his rogue ideas): “…you’re not a writer. Blogging is not writing. It’s just graffiti with punctuation”.
Aside from Twitter’s inherent spontaneity, some of which may be interpreted as graffiti, is this idea social media is unfettered by the existing layers of hierarchy and publishing protocols rigorously followed by conventional news agencies. Whether this is advantageous long term to fostering cohesively-minded news organizations producing high quality material or bands of free-wheeling renegade journalists spewing half-baked noise is debatable.
In any case, the raw unfiltered nature of Twitter and other social communities can be both alluring and a daunting proposition for mainstream news outlets. Senior editors must invariably balance timeliness of reports with quality and accuracy of the information being presented.
Whether it’s the reputation of an individual or the identity of an entire news organization at stake, Twitter has, at least for the time being, become part of the news media mainstream.
Twitter is fast—really fast—as demonstrated in the case of Whitney Houston’s death, but also a magnet for misinformation and graffiti (with punctuation). Case in point: RIP Chris Brown Death Hoax Trends on Twitter After Whitney Houston’s Death.
It’s naive to assume everything we read on Twitter is factual. The Chris Brown RIP hoax, also: Tiger Woods, Madonna, Cher, Jackie Chan, and Soulja Boy hoaxes only continue to illustrate Twitter’s fallibility as a credible source for news and information.