The ups and downs of crowd-sourced news

by Richard on April 27, 2012

Many regular readers will be aware that my friends in the United Methodist Church have been meeting in Tampa, Florida (lucky things!) for the four yearly General Conference. They have followed the lead of the British Methodist Church by having a live video feed of proceedings and, perhaps more importantly, there has been a lot of coverage on Twitter. Shayne Raynor extols its virtues

I realized the power of Twitter as a news source on the Sunday night when Osama Bin Laden’s death was made public. CNN had announced an unusual White House news conference that would happen later in the evening. I changed the TV to Fox News Channel and Geraldo Rivera was saying the same. (If anyone was going to let the cat out of the bag prematurely, I figured it would be Geraldo, but not this time.) So I signed on to Twitter, and Bin Laden’s death was already trending. Television news had been scooped by the masses—what’s not to love about that?

Anytime you put power in many hands, it’s bound to get messy. That’s the nature of democracy and freedom. And there are few things as free and as democratic as Twitter. You obviously can’t believe everything you read there, but as long as you understand the limitations of the source and verify the information, you can learn a lot. And you can learn it before a reporter can write the first paragraph of their news story. It’s amazing how much can be said in 140 characters.

There’s a large part of me that agrees with Shane. Twitter, and to some extent the other social media, can be a remarkable tool for democracy. All the traditional ‘gatekeepers’ are bypassed - “the public” gets to tell its own story, in its own. Hurrah!

Almost. And I’ll tell you why.

This afternoon there was a bit of an incident in central London. Bomb threats, hostages, closed streets. Here’s the BBC’s summary of events. I first learned that something was afoot from twitter. While it was a single-line ‘breaking news’ on the BBC website, the twitterverse was buzzing. Searching on ‘Tottenham Court Road’ and the ‘hashtag’ #TCR revealed a steady stream of information, much of it from on the spot. Well, I say a stream. More like a good-sized river, if not a flood. And that’s the problem.

An organisation like the BBC takes time to check sources, verify facts. Dull things like that. Twitter gives it to you raw and wriggling. Sometimes that OK. From a relatively well-ordered crowd like the UMC, the signal-to-noise ratio is high. The flow of information and commentary is generally useful. However, events in London this afternoon show that crowd-sourced news is not always so well-disciplined. Looking for good information in the twitter stream had the characteristics of the search for the proverbial needle. A significant proportion of tweets were pointless comments, feeble humour and weak jokes that did not benefit from endless recycling. The proof of this lay in the ‘now trending’ column. ‘Tottenham Court Road and #TCR were right at the top — closely followed by Gazza and Paul Gascoigne, the subject of one of those jokes. Under these circumstances, separating the wheat from the chaff was hardly trivial.

I learned that something was happening from twitter. But it was traditional journalism, with all its faults, that informed me what that something was.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }


Pam 04.28.12 at 1:33 am

A number of years ago now, Roald Dahl wrote a book about twitter. Quite prescient.


Richard 04.28.12 at 7:47 am

Do you tweet, Pam?


Pam 04.28.12 at 9:20 am

Is commenting at blogs tweeting?


Bob Gilston 04.28.12 at 11:55 am

You’re not limited to 140 characters in a blog. That limitation would curtail some of the comments but not very useful for serious discussion.

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