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The Mumbai Reports: Will Twittering Masses Supplant Pro Journalists?

By Renay San Miguel
Dec 5, 2008 4:00 AM PT

I'm starting to lose track of which major news event is supposed to be THE turning point for technology-driven citizen journalism. Was it bloggers detailing the horrors of Sept. 11? The surreal graininess of cell phone videos and photos capturing the 2004 London subway bombings? The digital camcorder footage later that same year showing the South Asian tsunami washing away coastlines and lives? What about the eerie muted gunshots of a madman heard on another cell phone video, this one from the Virginia Tech campus in 2007?

The Mumbai Reports: Will Twittering Masses Supplant Pro Journalists?

We have a new entrant in the technology-changes-news sweepstakes: Twitter and its use during last week's horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. Depending on which media analysis you prefer, the free mobile micro-blogging service is now officially influential, and has either single-handedly made TV news irrelevant by sending scraps of information halfway around the world while network news was still putting on its shoes, or it's making regular news gatekeepers that much more important because whether we like it or not, traditional media helps narrow the stream on the digital information firehose we're all trying to drink from in the 21st century.

I'm inclined to fall into the latter camp. Then again, I'm a news guy, born in newspapers, weaned on television and now entering my third decade of experience knee-deep in digital journalism. I'd like to think people like me can still serve a purpose in meatspace. But I'm starting to go into insulin shock from all the Tweet-talking going on in the media. It's strictly being done for the sake of other media types who have also become addicted to oversharing on Twitter or Facebook. And we assume every single one of our viewers or readers is just like us.

For those who aren't "in the biz," this news just in: Twitter is software that lets you send very short messages -- 140 characters, max -- to friends and the world while you're out and about in that world. "What are you doing?" asks Twitter's login. If you believe media writers, they'll say the answer is, "I'm watching a breaking news event happen right before my eyes, and I'm telling you about it before Brian Willliams does."

Okay. But does that real-time response make it real big-time journalism?

A Digital Tool in the News Toolbox

Dianne Lynch, dean of the Roy Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, told me about a Forbes story that heralded Twitter's arrival in the mainstream via major news events. The thrust was that thanks to social networks and technology, "in other words, we're all journalists now. That is nonsense. A journalist gets a message and then spends the time and resources to make sure it's true before he shares it."

Lynch, who posts regularly to PBS's very fine "Mediashift" blog, was the founding executive director of the Online News Association. I had her pegged as being sympathetic to technologies that can turn anyone into Eyewitness News. But her roots are in traditional journalism. She knows what journalism is and isn't.

"What it isn't is tools," she said. "Twitter is a tool. Like all technology platforms or tools, it has a purpose and value in a particular time and context. Twitter has been used very badly by so many people over the last six to eight months. 'What are you doing now?' Most of the time, nobody cares. But once in a while when there's a breaking news event, and people are on the ground using it, it is an extraordinary tool"

Lynch says it delivers value via short bursts of real-time information blasted to the largest possible audience. And in all breaking news situations, those bursts are going to contain mistakes. Traditional news organizations made them in the first couple of hours after the first plane flew into the North Tower on Sept. 11. There were inaccuracies in the Mumbai tweets; other Twitterers were simply echoing reports from local Indian media.

"Breaking news is breaking. It's a work in progress," Lynch said. "That's the whole point, and when you have the value of a having a tool like Twitter, the audience and the viewers get a bird's-eye view of a thousand points of light, and that picture is never going to be complete."

Indeed, some of the initial Tweets from those in Mumbai immediately after the attacks started that were found on the BBC's Web site, or linked to from other Web sites are compelling, frightening, sad. They vividly impart what must have been a mad rush of activity, a confusion of gunshots, explosions, sirens and shouts. But how exactly do we know what is being Tweeted is actually true -- that the person sending the message is really down the street for the Oberoi Hotel in downtown Mumbai?

"How do we know? We don't. But how do we know when we get a phone call and somebody tells us a story about something that it's true? How do we know when somebody sends us an e-mail that it's that person?" At this point Lynch gets downright existential on me. "How do I know you're who you are, talking on the phone right now? That also misses the point. What you have here is a delivery system, and what it allows is individuals across a broad section of space and time to contribute pieces of information. You have to make the determination if it's correct, one piece at a time."

Twittering to the Choir

Lynch and I are on the same Tweet page when it comes to media coverage of Twitter; media types are notorious early tech adopters, and as has been mentioned here before, no one loves to talk about the media more than the media. Lynch's research from May of last year says national Twitter usage isn't matching the hype. "For every 1 million Americans who went online, six went to Twitter."

Those numbers have no doubt gone up in 2008, according to reports from sources quoted in VentureBeat and TechCrunch -- my guess is the presidential election helped -- but I'm with Lynch when she says "we have this notion that everybody's using Twitter. Everybody's not. The audience that journalism is supposed to be servicing -- the people, democracy -- don't use Twitter. It doesn't even register. They still go to Yahoo News."

And it's my guess they'll be needing the services of traditional media more to help adjust the signal-to-noise ratio in our information-rich world. Anchors and producers don't have to pass along every single Tweet that comes in from a news event; blogs and online news organizations don't have to link to everything that's Twittered if they have the slightest suspicions about its veracity.

Whaddya know; somebody in the 21st century may actually need an editor's news judgment after all. And who knows; maybe traditional news can help Twitter's triumvirate of founders actually figure out a way to make their fortunes. A service that was originally intended to be yet another social network is finding its true value in the news business.

"What are you doing now," you ask? I'm trying to figure out a way to sell Twitter to CBS, CNN, Fox, the New York Times ...


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