Twitter Breaks the News
In 2009 US Airways flight 1549 crashed in New York’s Hudson river. It took only four minutes before a tweet made by Jim Hanrahan (@Manolantern) alerted the public to what had happened. The media were considerably slower to respond, with 15 minutes elapsing before news outlets began reporting the story.
This is not an isolated case. Two of the biggest stories of the year, the death of Steve Jobs and the death of Muammar Gaddafi were both trending topics on Twitter long before they hit the news.
The reason Twitter can break the news so quickly is simple, it doesn’t have to fact-check. For a news outlet to release a story they first have to find reputable sources to confirm the legitimacy of the story. Twitter doesn’t need that and news spreads as easily as one click of the “re-tweet” button.
Even though news outlets can’t possibly keep up with Twitter’s speed, some are trying, often with dangerous results.
A few months ago, a popular early morning news show ran a breaking news bulletin from the USA stating: “Mass grave found on property in Texas!” This tantalising piece of information was intriguing and the show promised “More details to follow”.
Fifteen minutes later another bulletin followed, announcing the same details but hinting that there may be children’s corpses amongst the dead bodies; this clip was also accompanied by aerial footage taken at the property.
By this point American newspapers had also joined in on the act with one paper saying that there could be as many as sixty graves found on the property. Within half an hour all news outlets involved were now agreeing that there had been sixty graves found, and they were now saying that all of the bodies were those of children.
Around this point more details began emerging, first that the police had been tipped off about the grave by an anonymous woman, second that they had found something on the property that aroused their suspicion and led them to find the graves and finally, the name and relevant details about the owner of and the location of the property in question.
I continued to follow the story throughout the day and noticed that the details were beginning to change, soon “Police have found a mass grave with over sixty children’s bodies at a property in Texas” became “Police have allegedly found…”
Then that detail changed to a “member of the Police department says police have responded to a tip off about a possible mass grave in Texas.” The breaking news updates on the television stopped after this. Hours later the truth emerged, there were no dead bodies, not even one. Whoops.
The tip off to the police had apparently come from a local psychic and the search was based solely on her vision.
I believe that this is a clear case where the pressure and need to break the news before social media pick it up was at play here. By trying to be first these journalists set aside their ethics,(something that should never happen) The truth and the facts should come before all else, but, unfortunately, in this case they didn’t and the Texan family were put into danger by having their names and address released. These people were victims of trial by media.
What journalists need to realise is that even though they can’t compete with Twitter’s speed, 140 characters is never going to replace a well researched, in-depth article. As long as the media place priority on quality over speed, they will continue to be relevant in the digital world.