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Twitter: Often first, not always right

The role of the media is now shifting with social sites also breaking news.
The role of the media is now shifting with social sites also breaking news.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • News organizations are battling with issues of verification in the age of social networks
  • Hoaxes are common on social networks where mistruths can spread as legitimate news
  • "Verification" and "Curation", are key to the future of news

(Mashable) -- News of the tragic death of Whitney Houston this weekend didn't appear first on television or mainstream news sites. Instead it was revealed in a tweet posted forty-five minutes before the Associated Press reported the tragedy.

The source: The niece of Houston's hairstylist, who also knew the circumstances of the singer's death hours prior to news outlets. A second Twitter user with the handle @chilemasgrande reported the story almost thirty minutes before the Associated Press.

To compete with Twitter in breaking news, it seems, is increasingly challenging. So what becomes the role of the media when stories are often reported first by citizens?

It's worth noting that neither tweet received much attention prior to the AP reporting the news. The second user to report the story, for instance, only received one retweet. One difference between a tweet from the Associated Press and @chilemasgrande: Trust. It's that word, "trust", that will differentiate the top media companies going forward.

Take, for instance, the recent death of college football coach Joe Paterno. On January 21, Penn State student website Onward State ran a story claiming that Paterno had passed away. The article was picked up by a blog on CBS Sports and spread rapidly on Twitter. Except that the article was incorrect -- Paterno was in a serious condition but did not in fact pass away until the day after the report ran.

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Other media outlets, such as the Huffington Post, ran with the story. Later, the Huffington Post updated its article stating it had been incorrect -- the correction came courtesy of the Associated Press.

This is not to say that the Associated Press is infallible, but merely that news organizations are battling with issues of verification in the age of social networks. In an era when your readers are also publishers, media companies face increased pressures to get the story out fast -- or risk "breaking" the news that your audience has known for hours.

Some outlets maintain traditional standards around verification, believing their brand equity to be worth more than breaking news that may turn out to be false. Others choose a "publish first, update later" strategy, which ensures massive web traffic but which damages reader trust if the story proves incorrect.

And since the sharing of news stories on social networks is an increasingly large source of traffic for news websites, might this loss of trust lead readers to share the source's stories less enthusiastically in future?

There's reason to believe that Twitter and Facebook users -- in their new roles as the distributors of news on the web -- are becoming cautious about sharing news with their friends without personally verifying it. As Facebook user Nuno Valente said of the news: "Twitter was faster than 'traditional' press in regard to the Whitney Houston death but usually cries wolf just for fun."

In the same Facebook thread, Mary Luz added "When I first heard the news my first thought was just like Bon Jovi and his reported death, I am sure it's a Hoax. Unfortunately it was not."

Such hoaxes are common on social networks where mistruths can spread as quickly as legitimate news. The Bon Jovi example cited by Luz occurred in December 2011, but just this weekend a rumor surfaced on a news site that actor Keanu Reeves had passed away. While the report gained some traction on Twitter, no major news organization reprinted the misinformation.

This, I think, is the role of news organizations in the social era -- to establish trust, to verify, and to make sense of the chaotic flood of information we receive from social networks. Sometimes that means seeking confirmation, but much of the time it simply means to curate the stream of Tweets and Facebook messages -- to craft them into a meaningful story.

Those two concepts: "Verification" and "Curation", are key to the future of news.

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