Retweeting rumors and the reality of news as a process

Are those who post or retweet unverified reports on Twitter playing an important role in the new ecosystem of news, or are they being irresponsible and indulging in gossip? That debate flared to life again this week after a number of journalists — and non-journalists — reposted a rumor about Piers Morgan being dumped by CNN (s twx). Some have argued that this was a natural use of Twitter as a real-time information network (and noted that the rumor was quickly squashed) but others say that posting news without verifying it is a dereliction of a journalist’s fundamental duty. So is Twitter part of the problem, or is it part of the solution?

In this case, the rumor in question started with a parody Twitter account — one using the name Dan Wooden, a name designed to make fun of a British news presenter named Dan Wootton — which posted the news that Morgan had been let go by CNN. Among those who retweeted the erroneous Morgan report was another British news presenter: Jon Snow, the well-respected host of Channel 4 News. His retweet was then redistributed by dozens of others, including the new social-media editor at Reuters (s tri), Anthony De Rosa, and their retweets in turn were reposted as fact by other users.

Within minutes of this rumor making the rounds of the media sphere on Twitter, however, journalists started raising questions about whether it was true, with some noting that the account it originally came from was a parody account. Others noted they had spoken to CNN and there was no truth to the report, and finally Jon Snow issued a retraction (though not an apology) and deleted his original tweet — and eventually Piers Morgan confirmed it was untrue.

Twitter: More like a newsroom than a newspaper

While the incident led to an outpouring of apologies and recriminations about how journalists should know better than to retweet things they haven’t verified, Reuters blogger Felix Salmon took the opposite tack. In a post on his personal blog, he said he didn’t mind such rumors being posted at all, and in fact, seemed to see it as a natural use of Twitter as a real-time information network:

There’s been a lot of shamefacedness and embarrassment on Twitter from people who tweeted the false news that Piers Morgan had been suspended from CNN, [but] one of the things I like about Twitter is that it behaves in many ways a lot more like a newsroom than a newspaper. Rumors happen there, and then they get shot down — no harm no foul.

Salmon expanded on this view on his Reuters blog as well. Anthony De Rosa, meanwhile, admitted he had made a mistake and that he should probably have clarified in his tweet: a) where the original post came from; and b) that he hadn’t actually verified the information. But he also noted that Twitter had managed to disprove the rumor within minutes of it first being broadcast, as it has in dozens — if not hundreds — of other similar cases (De Rosa has written more about the incident on his own Reuters blog).

A decline in credibility?

This wasn’t good enough for many other critics of the retweeting, however, including some prominent journalists and industry observers such as Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review. In a post on the AJR blog, Rieder said what the media industry needed was “a lot more reporting, and a lot less guessing, whether on Twitter or anywhere else.” He and others argued that in the current environment — with traditional media sources under attack from new competitors as well as struggling to find a business model in a digital-only world — credibility was a crucial differentiator. Rieder said:

More than ever in the past, a reporter’s individual reputation, or brand, matters. With the way people access information now, they are apt to seek out individual writers rather than specific news organizations. And what can damage a reporter’s credibility more than distributing bad information? Also, what’s the upside? What does throwing out there something that may or may not be true add to the conversation?

This debate goes directly to the heart of the idea of “news as a process” — an idea that is directly opposed to the traditional vision of journalism as a product that is punched out by newspapers and other mainstream sources at predictable times, with all the information necessary to know about a particular event. As journalism professor Jeff Jarvis and others have argued, social tools such as Twitter and Facebook and blogs and all the other real-time services at our disposal make the “news” much more of a never-ending stream of updates and corrections and additions.

To traditional media outlets, and observers like the AJR’s Rieder, this represents a collapse of principles, a slide backward into gossip and rumor. But journalists such as Andy Carvin of National Public Radio — who has been curating news via Twitter for the past six months as revolutions have swept through the Middle East — have shown that posting unverified accounts can be a critical part of pulling together a breaking news story. In Carvin’s case, he always makes it clear that what he’s posting isn’t verified, and that he is looking for help from his network of sources in proving or disproving it.

Twitter and the Steve Jobs heart-attack rumor

I have my own story to tell about this kind of Twitter reporting. In 2008, there was a report posted on CNN’s iReport service that Steve Jobs had been taken to the hospital after suffering a heart attack. I posted this news on Twitter while I was on the train, because it seemed newsworthy, although I noted that it hadn’t been verified. Within the hour, the report had been proven false, but I still came under fire from a number of critics (including a number of other journalists) for posting something that I had not personally verified to be true — even though it came with a disclaimer.

To me, traditional journalists like Rieder and others seem to see Twitter as just a distribution mechanism for news that has already been prepared and packaged by journalists with existing media outlets, all verified and tied up in a bow. But news — especially now, with social media and other real-time publishing tools — is a messy and chaotic and unreliable process, filled with erroneous reports and corrections and updates. That may not be pretty, but it’s closer to the truth of things than newspapers would like to admit.

Should journalists (or anyone for that matter) check things before they retweet them? Of course they should. Should we all be a little skeptical of news reports that sound too good (or bad) to be true? Of course we should. But Twitter can play a role in making the news better, not just in providing a distribution mechanism for it. And expecting the news in all of its messy unpredictability to move from Twitter back behind the closed doors of a traditional newsroom is misguided at best.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Andrew Bardwell George Kelly