As I tuned into CBC Radio on the morning of Wednesday Oct. 22, I was surprised to hear Anna Maria Tremonti and David Common instead of the usual Early Edition host, Rick Cluff. Something wasn't right.
It soon became clear that the seat of Canada's democracy was under attack. In those first minutes, through a mix of CBC Radio and Twitter, I tried to make sense of what was going on.
The way news spread about the Ottawa shooting was the latest illustration of how news happens in an age of instant information where reports from journalists are jumbled in with a mix of experiences and emotion.
On Wednesday, there were 138,622 tweets with the hashtag #OttawaShooting alone, and more than half a million with the word Ottawa. When a crisis hits the headlines, social media swings into action as a nervous system for the planet. When the world hiccups, Twitter twitches.
Filling the sudden gulf
Real-time media turns a crisis into a drama where anyone can play a role in the spread of information. In the past, there was a gulf between a news story and the public. Breaking news is always messy and chaotic, but the public rarely saw the work happening behind the scenes in newsrooms to assess what was true, what was hearsay and what was conjecture.
The process of journalism no longer just happens behind closed doors in newsrooms. The making of the news takes place in public. Every twist and turn is described, discussed and dissected on an instant news network open to all, for better or worse. Twitter, in particular, serves as a public square for updates, speculation, opinions and emotions.
Understanding how news flows today at such times as the Ottawa shooting can help us sort fact from fiction. The first wave of information tends to come from people directly caught up in the news. In this case, the tweets came from journalists on Parliament Hill.
These firsthand accounts tend to account for only a minority of the overall volume. Such messages are soon overtaken by others joining in. Given a lack of reliable information, people improvise and make do with whatever sketchy details they have.
Waves across the town square
The rhythms of real time show how Twitter serves as a fleeting town square for people to share their reaction, fear, sorrow and hopes.
Looking back at the Ottawa shootings, there is a pattern to the flow of information. After the initial shock and reaction, came messages of condolence using the hashtag #PrayforOttawa. There were more than 45,000 tweets with #PrayforOttawa as Canadians came together through social media.
Then came messages of solidarity expressed through the hashtag #OttawaStrong. By Thursday, there had been almost 90,000 #OttawaStrong tweets from Canada and across the world.
The bigger the news, the more sensational a story, the more noise there is, the farther it travels and the harder it becomes to detect the truth. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, falsehoods travelled much faster and wider than truths on Twitter. But accurate reports tended to spread at a steady pace from the start, with these tweets coming from users with significant numbers of followers.
Making sense of the hodgepodge of information in real time is difficult as first impressions can be misleading. After the London riots of August 2011, politicians were quick to blame social media for inciting rioters and spreading rumours. In reality, Twitter was used in real time to knock down rumours.
This is how news works now. Stories unfold before our eyes as information is contested, confirmed or contradicted in a symbiotic relationship between traditional and social media. But the more we understand about how news works on Twitter, the more we can make smart decisions about what we read and retweet.