Tuesday, July 14, 2009

good tweet, bad tweet

Changing the news one tweet at a time? I guess. But whether that's for good or ill remains to be seen.

A piece in the New York Times by Alan Cowell about the ubiquity of twitter chatter notes that most reporting out of Iran during the post-election protests came in the form of 140 characters or fewer. And much of that, in fact, made it into the mainstream press.

But then the piece quotes slate.com's tech-friendly Jack Shafer thus: “My zeal for Twitter knows a limit,” wrote Jack Shafer, editor at large of the online publication Slate, saying the welter of messages from the streets of Tehran was “more noise than signal in understanding the Iranian upheaval.”

On the other hand, but on the same subject, the New York Times' Brian Stetler sees tweets (and youtube videos) as filling the void when foreign correspondents have been called home and the powers that be may be imposing a news blackout. The cascade of citizen news that came out of Iran during those first days was a starting point for news organizations with no feet on the ground. The task then became to watch the news as it developed, sift and analyze it, and -- you hope -- vet it. Stetler writes:
“Check the source” may be the first rule of journalism. But in the coverage of the protests in Iran this month, some news organizations have adopted a different stance: publish first, ask questions later. If you still don’t know the answer, ask your readers.
In yet another story on the subject -- this one also cites twitter as the real-time source of news of Michael Jackson's death -- the AP's Jake Coyle looks at the inaccuracies or flat out lies that sometimes crop up on the twittersphere, such as the grossly exaggerated report of Jeff Goldblum's untimely demise. The problem with DIY journalism is the lack of accountability. Twits can tweet anything. He writes:

While involvement in the protests in Iran might be Twitter's most meaningful achievement thus far, some have noted that many inaccuracies were circulated.

That has raised the concern that some people or governments may use Twitter to spread disinformation even more dangerous than suggesting Jeff Goldblum is dead.

Andrew Keen, author of "The Cult of the Amateur," believes Twitter — and whatever real-time Web services follow in its wake — represents the future of both the Internet and media.

But Keen says the Iran coverage on Twitter "exposes all the weakness of the service, the fact that it's so chaotic and unreliable. Who knows who's tweeting what?"

Back to Cowell, who concedes that new forms of info-sharing does indeed make for new ways to gather news, but still suggests it adds a layer of complexity to the process. He writes:

News gathering takes time, energy, courage, people, humility, creativity and layers of editorial oversight to guarantee the authenticity of the final product. For all the human flaws of those who gather, edit, check and analyze it, news allows people to judge for themselves whether the people they voted into office merit their trust and their tax dollars.

As the Twitter revolution has shown, the ascendancy of new methods of spreading the news — a kind of digital, high-speed word-of-mouth — reinforces the need for assembling it, sifting it and trying to make sense of it.

Honest news is essential to ensuring that people know what their soldiers are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan as much as what their politicians are doing in their boudoirs or how they are composing their expense accounts. At its best, news bypasses spin to let readers know who is really winning on the far-flung killing fields of Pakistan or Gaza, just as it did in Vietnam.

We lose all that at our peril.

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