Yes, Twitter is a source of journalism

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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.

Comments (12)

  1. Atle Brunvoll wrote::

    My experience during the Mumbai terror night was that twitter was no reliable source for news, but it was an excellent source for LINKS to relevant news.

    Friday, December 5, 2008 at 8:17 am #
  2. Few minutes after the Mumbai attacks, news instantly spread like wildfire via Twitter. I believe Twitter is a useful tool for journalism because it can be a source of news and latest happenings. I too, received the news about Mumbai attacks before it was aired on television…and this is because of Twitter.

    Saturday, December 6, 2008 at 5:00 am #
  3. noni benefits wrote::

    mathew you right twitter is a great website it social bookmarking website as well as information sharing website.

    Thank you

    Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 12:06 pm #
  4. I think India government (especially, Sonia govt.) does not have the political or international acumen to deal with this scenario. India is a soft nation and so can be easily pushed around. Look at the terror attacks one after the another. The latest example is Mumbai.

    Monday, January 19, 2009 at 7:07 am #
  5. Great post, really help me alot. Thanks.

    Cheers,
    Buat Duit Dengan Blog

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 5:03 am #
  6. catem wrote::

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    Monday, August 10, 2009 at 9:53 am #
  7. Excellent! Great article, I already saved it to my favourite,

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 3:22 am #
  8. Twitter Comment


    Yes, Twitter is a source of journalism — mathewingram.com/work [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 2:12 pm #
  9. Twitter Comment


    Yes, Twitter is a source of journalism — mathewingram.com/work: [link to post] #Delicious #Hotlist

    Posted using Chat Catcher

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 2:53 pm #
  10. Twitter Comment


    Yes, Twitter is a source of journalism — mathewingram.com/work [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 3:01 pm #
  11. Twitter Comment


    Yes, Twitter is a source of journalism — mathewingram.com/work: [link to post]

    Posted using Chat Catcher

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 3:02 pm #
  12. Twitter Comment


    via Del.icio.us : Yes, Twitter is a source of journalism — mathewingram.com/work: [link to post] #social #networking

    Posted using Chat Catcher

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

Trackbacks/Pingbacks (23)

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  6. […] the last several months, nearly every major news event – from earthquakes to the Mumbai attacks to plane crashes – Twitter was first to report what was going on, by people […]

  7. robwar0100 (Bobby Warren) on Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    Twitter Comment


    Yes, Twitter is a source of journalism [link to post]

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

  8. pinot (Pinot) on Monday, April 6, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Twitter Comment


    Twitter is not a valid source of news. True. Unverified eyewitness reports. True. Ignore it? Wrong! [link to post] #journalism

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

  9. pinot (Pinot) on Monday, April 6, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Twitter Comment


    Twitter isn’t a valid source of news. True. Unverified eyewitness reports. True. Ignore its news value? False! [link to post] #journalism

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

  10. Lynx or Links: #mumbai « The Ironical Monocle on Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    […] Mathew Ingram’s well thought-out argument that Twitter is a valid source of journalism as a “first draft of history” (Link) […]

  11. pinot (Pinot) on Monday, June 15, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    Twitter is not a valid source of news. True. Unverified eyewitness reports. True. Ignore it? FALSE! http://is.gd/9dOj #journalism

  12. dhitri (Adhityani Arga) on Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 12:42 am

    RT @pinot: Twitter is not a valid source of news. True. Unverified eyewitness reports. True. Ignore it? FALSE! http://is.gd/9dOj #journalism

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  20. lssmj2004neil (Neil) on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    ‘Yes, twitter is a source of journalism’. Two years old, but still very relevant. http://tinyurl.com/5levvl

  21. prinsen (Anders Printz) on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    Yes, Twitter is a source of journalism : http://www.mathewingram.com/work/2008/11/26/yes-twitter-is-a-source-of-journalism/

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