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Mediacheck

Idea #8: Twitter the News

Microblogging is shifting the business of reporting events.

By Tom Barrett 31 Dec 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Barrett is a Tyee contributing editor.

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New ideas for the new year.

[Editor's note: Back by popular demand, The Tyee again is offering its readers a series of New Ideas for the New Year. We're publishing a new one every weekday from Dec. 22 through Jan. 2. They're intended to get everyone's problem-solving, creative thinking going for 2009. Later in January, we'll be asking you to suggest your own new ideas for the new year, and will publish a selection.]

This was the year that Twitter became a news source. As terrorists attacked Mumbai in November, microbloggers posted first-hand accounts and wild rumours alike for the world to read.

In the coming year, the challenge for media will be making sense of all the tweets, says Alfred Hermida, of the University of B.C. journalism school.

Microblogging was used in places besides Mumbai in 2008.

"We saw it happening with the Chinese earthquake, where reports were coming through on Twitter before anyone else had it," Hermida said. "We saw it during the fires in California."

Twitter was designed to let people post messages, or tweets, of 140 characters or less. The tweets were supposed to answer that burning question: "What are you doing?"

But as well as letting people tell the world "I'm at the mall" or "I'm going to Jessica's," Twitter also let people describe what was happening inside Mumbai hotels as gunmen murdered Western tourists.

Media such as the BBC ran the tweets on their websites, giving the world an unprecedented look at an unfolding event. But along with the newsworthy tweets, there were false rumours like the story that the Indian government had demanded people stop Twittering the attacks.

That's what happens when you throw information on to the web without checking it.

"It's a very different approach to the way journalists normally work to suddenly say, 'Well, we're going to publish things and just say we haven't checked this but here it is anyway,'" Hermida told The Tyee.

"It's still labelled as unverified or unfiltered but the idea of having this content side by side with your professionally produced reports, I think that's what's really quite a departure from the established journalism practice."

In 2009, media will be challenged to "add a layer of meaning" to unfiltered content coming from Twitter and other microblogging tools, Hermida said.

"How do we make sense of this data?" he said. "I think this is where we'll see things moving in the next year."

For one thing, the sheer volume of microblogged information can be overwhelming in its raw state.

"If you're getting eight to 10 tweets per second on Mumbai, it's almost just too much information. It's just too much."

The next stage will be figuring out how to sort these messages so they're something more than raw data, Hermida said.

One way is to let readers recommend messages, similar to what happens now on Digg, he said. In theory, this would mean the best information would rise to the top.

Or a media organization could write a program that would group common messages by analyzing the words they contain. Or they could post a list of, say, the top 10 links on a subject that users are sharing.

"I think this is where a news organization or a very clever tech start-up will come in and say, 'Hey, let's add meaning to this,'" Hermida said.

Hermida, one of the founders of the BBCNews.com site and the site's former technology editor, said media organizations are realizing that people are increasingly getting their news in an unfiltered, unverified form on the Internet.

In the future, he argued, they will need to figure out how to incorporate this kind of news into the service they provide. That will likely mean professional and amateur news gatherers working more closely together.

"This is happening anyway," Hermida said. "People are getting their information like that anyway. So it's much better to work towards a collaborative model where you can say this is unfiltered, this is unverified, and you still provide the verification and authentication that a journalist would provide.

"The journalist before was the one who gathered the news and told the world this is what's happening. And in many ways that has been undermined by the Internet. So anybody can gather news and anybody can distribute it."

Media organizations will end up asking themselves what added value they can bring to this "amateur" news, he said.

"And you bring value by putting into context, authenticating, verifying, et cetera."

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