Twitter has been heralded as the best new tool for journalists to spread news, but does it exist outside the editorial process?
Many newspapers and broadcasting channels have Twitter accounts, generally used to "tweet" stories that have been reported or written. Sometimes, however, Twitter is the first source of information and thus becomes the initial broadcaster.
This was true in the French coverage of the DSK affair last May. The first news of DSK's arrest came from a French student's Twitter, who cited his friend in New York. Twitter has been the first news source for other stories in the American press, such as the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 and the airplane landing in the Hudson River in 2009, but Work In Progress reported that the DSK story was the first time Twitter featured as the initial source of a high profile story in France.
Le Figaro noted that Twitter's role was not confined to the first few hours. Journalists continued to use the site to report "live", regardless of whether the Tweets came from French or American press. Inevitably, rumors become mistaken for facts, and this is when the differences between Twitter and traditional media reporting were highlighted.
Europe1.fr published an article citing journalists' Twitter accounts as sources. Although not uncommon, this proved to be problematic after one Tweet about a surveillance video of DSK hurriedly leaving the Sofitel room he was staying was contested. In the U.S., some news organizations have laid out guidelines for Twitter usage, but the French press has no equivalent yet.
Canal+ forbade its journalists from using Twitter, but not for fear of inaccuracy. The TV broadcaster wanted to ensure story exclusivity (stories that are "tweeted" are quickly picked up by other press organizations).
Generally, the French were more reserved than their American counterparts, allowing news to be posted on Twitter for at least a few minutes before they were reported on traditional mediums. Not always so for American press. In a story debunked last week, KPRC in Houston tweeted a story about 20-30 bodies - including children- that had been found on a property outside of Houston. The story was proved to be untrue in a matter of hours, but not before the news was reported internationally.
NPR traced the evolution of the story, which boils down to a convoluted he-said she-said. KPRC claimed the Liberty County Sheriff's Department contacted them tipping them to the story, but the sheriff's department refuted the claim.
In the interview with NPR, KPRC's Deborah Collura explained, "we never said anything on the air."
But why the distinction between television broadcasting and official Twitter accounts? KPRC blamed the lack of control - entire newsrooms have access to Twitter, and accountability is hard to come by. Regardless, the incident was a good learning experience for the station. Twitter is an official branch of broadcasting, and needs the same checks and balances that television or press reporting entails. Breaking news across multiple channels requires a concise strategy.
When Twitter breaks the news, journalists are not entities separate from the media companies they work for. In order to avoid missteps and an awkward divorce between what is said on Twitter and what is reported in the newsrooms, all sides benefit from a consolidated approach. Holding social media to a different standard than TV or press news only creates more noise.