Yes, Twitter is a source of journalism

by Mathew on November 26, 2008 · 156 comments

Like a lot of other people, I’ve been following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) throughout the day, using Twitter and blog search and Wikipedia and Flickr and YouTube and pretty much any other tool I can get my hands on. Sites like Global Voices — the excellent blog network set up by Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society — and NowPublic have a lot of content, and Amy Gahran of Poynter has a pretty good roundup as well. Searching Twitter for mentions of the word “Mumbai” also produced a steady stream of messages, some of them from people close to the scene.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before, of course — during earthquakes in China, as well as forest fires in California, and so on. But some people still refuse to acknowledge that what Twitter is doing is effectively journalism. Tom at Tom’s Tech Blog, for example, took the time to write a post saying Twitter is not a valid source of news, echoing a view he also expressed after news of the Chinese earthquake was “broken” via Twitter. Tom says that what people post to Twitter is not news because it hasn’t been verified, and that in fact “the noise that Twitter generates in situations like these is downright cruel and dangerous.” As an example, he notes that early reports on Twitter said there were explosions or attacks at the Marriott Hotel in Mumbai, which turned out not to be the case.

“If you watch Twitter you’ll see people reporting an attack at the Marriot Hotel in Mumbai. The problem is there was NO ATTACK on the Marriot. The Ramada hotel next door was attacked by several gun men but nothing’s happened at the Marriot.

Now imagine, if you’re someone who has family or friends at the Marriot right now. You’d be scared out of your mind over information that’s completely false.”

I don’t want to make light of Tom’s point. It’s true that messages posted to Twitter aren’t verified in any sense of the word, and in many cases could be wrong, or could perpetuate misunderstandings or factual inaccuracies — although I think it’s worth noting that dozens of Twitter messages corrected the Marriott reports not long after they first appeared on Twitter. At the same time, however, I think he’s blaming Twitter for something that occurs during every similar news event: in other words, unverified eyewitness reports. Every time there is a bombing or an earthquake or a tsunami, there are reports — many of which appear on television and other “traditional” media outlets — that turn out to be completely wrong.

Does that make those reports invalid? No. Obviously, no one wants a loved one to be worried by false reports. But at the same time, chaotic situations result in poor information flow — even to the “professional” journalists who are working at the scene. First-hand and second-hand reports on Twitter are no worse. Should anyone take them as gospel, or the final version of the events? No. Obviously, at some point someone has to check the facts, confirm reports, analyze the outcome, and so on. News reporting and journalism are much more of a process than they are a discrete thing. But as I have tried to argue before, Twitter reports are a valuable “first draft of history,” and that is a pretty good definition of the news.

For more, see Twitter messages I got from Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0, my Globe and Mail colleague Matt Frehner and Jack Lail of the Knoxville News Sentinel, as well as other friends of mine who responded to my question about whether Twitter is a valid news source.

Update:

Mike Arrington has a response here, and my friend Om Malik has posted some thoughts about Twitter and other social media and what they mean in terms of the evolution of media.

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