Media Guardian carries a timely analysis of some of the discussion of Twitter informing, in some cases becoming part of, the coverage of the terrorist attrocities in Mumbai.
It picks up on a blog post by Steve Herman, editor of the BBC News website:
As for the Twitter messages we were monitoring, most did not add a great amount of detail to what we knew of events, but among other things they did give a strong sense of what people connected in some way with the story were thinking and seeing. “Appalled at the foolishness of the curious onlookers who are disrupting the NSG operations,” wrote one. “Our soldiers are brave but I feel we could have done better,” said another. There was assessment, reaction and comment there and in blogs. One blogger’s stream of photos on photosharing site Flickr was widely linked to, including by us.
All this helped to build up a rapidly evolving picture of a confusing situation.
Where Twitter added to the understanding of what was happening for a reader of news, was the emotional immediacy. There were voices of people like me, on Twitter, shouting out loud about the horror happening around them.
It brought Mumbai closer. That’s a good thing, because the whole world needs to feel closer to events like these, the more likely for people to act in small choices and large to fight against religious fundamentalism and zealotry.
Image of a peace march by Mumbai blogger Vinu (http://vinu.wordpress.com)
But in the newsroom at the BBC it also led to a rumour being reported as fact (that the Indian government had asked people to stop using Twitter), which Steve feels was a mistake that should not be repeated:
Should we have checked this before reporting it? Made it clearer that we hadn’t? We certainly would have done if we’d wanted to include it in our news stories (we didn’t) or to carry it without attribution. In one sense, the very fact that this report was circulating online was one small detail of the story that day. But should we have tried to check it and then reported back later, if only to say that we hadn’t found any confirmation? I think in this case we should have, and we’ve learned a lesson. The truth is, we’re still finding out how best to process and relay such information in a fast-moving account like this.
More rumour, more noise, more information, more pitfalls: that’s what the continued onward march of social media means for news organisations.
It’s not a new challenge for the Beeb, as a news organisation that puts accuracy and fact above rumour. Twitter just adds a host of potential sources to the mix during a breaking news story.
I wrote about this a few years ago in post called Rumour or Raw Data, during the pre-Twitter age if you can remember that, when the then Metropolitan Poolic Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, said he instinctively turned on Sky News when the first news of the London tube bombings reached him.
In the heat of the moment, our instinct says I would rather have the unfiltered news, with the risks of inaccuracies and misinformation, than be late to hear. But – and it’s a significant but – you always want the option of a flight to fact: and that fact is usually found on the BBC,
The BBC is right to resist falling the Sky News of the line. That’s its role: to tell us what the truth is, when it is as sure as it can be what the truth is.