Twitter’s got itself in the news again this weekend. Once again people have had cause to realise what a powerful tool for the dissemination of information the social networking site is. At this stage Twitter has become mainstream and yet it’s still new enough that the issues it raises – the reliability of it as a source, the ethics of news breaking so quickly, the awesome power of this brand new form of broadcasting – are still to be hammered out satisfactorily.
The latest thing to throw the spotlight on the little blue bird is of course the way that the death of Gerry Ryan, one of Ireland’s foremost figures of broadcasting, spread like wildfire even before the news had been officially confirmed.
In fairness there’s always been a way of doing these things. Stories have to be confirmed before they’re made public and I can still vividly remember spending a very late night as a journalism student watching the Sky newsreader struggle not to break the news of Princess Diana’s death. We had happened across the story quite early on, when it was still a serious car accident in Paris involving a man and a woman. Even with those meagre details it was obvious from the prominence the story was being given that someone very well known had been in the crash and we decided to stay with the story.
Eventually they confirmed the fact that it was Diana but it was a considerable time before they confirmed she was dead. I remember watching the newsreader’s face crumble for a split second as the early confirmation came in his ear but he carried on for more than half an hour before he could share the news with his audience.
Twitter is as ever present as those 24 hour news bulletins but it’s far more anarchic in the way it operates. It’s not treated as the on air studio, it’s more the office water cooler. People go there to vent and to comment and to enjoy a freedom that isn’t normally available to working journalists outside the ranks of colleagues who physically share the scene. Maybe we shouldn’t think of it that way but we do, that’s just the way it works.
Journalists are naturally gossipy creatures and it ‘s the most natural thing in the world for us to want to share what we know around the water cooler. But with Twitter the water cooler has moved into that on air studio and broadcasting has become open to everyone. There’s a very good reason for that bright red ON AIR light in any studio. It reminds us that people are listening. With Twitter there’s no red light and sometimes people are going to forget. It’s natural and it’s human nature.
There are good reasons why news organisations hold back on reporting deaths. The main one is to allow the family the basic human dignity of hearing the news directly. It’s brutal enough when news like that is broken by the arrival of sympathetic gardai, to hear it at the same time of hundreds of thousands of other people is just too cruel. However, when the death is as high profile as that of Gerry Ryan journalistic instincts can over ride caution. It’s hard to describe what it means to break a story if you’re not a journalist but it’s such an intrinsic part of the job it becomes an almost physical urge that goes beyond merely doing the job you’re paid for. It’s the heart of what we do and that race to the finish can be – I hesitate to say addictive because I don’t want to be taken up wrong but it’s probably the best word for that feeling.
Twitter is the kind of place where you want to share a story that big. The first journalist to really break the news was Sunday Business Post journalist Adrian Weckler, he’s written about what happened on his blog here. There are a lot of Irish journos on Twitter these days and everyone jumped on the story. As the details emerged the debate was already raging about whether Weckler had been right to confirm the details before there had been any official confirmation. Una Mullally, writing in the Sunday Tribune, has written about what happened and she goes into far more detail than I’m going to. I know that the news broke where I was, in court, through Twitter but I was late to the story and didn’t get involved.
This isn’t the first time Irish media news has broken on Twitter. When the INN news agency took the decision to close last year Twitter somehow got the story before the journalists were informed they were about to lose their jobs. The news spread from Twitter into the mainstream media, just as it did on Friday, and staff listening to the news while they waited for a meeting with management to start, first heard they were out on their ears.
Journalism as we know it is changing rapidly. It’s easy to forget how loud a megaphone Twitter gives you. I’ve been an active user of Twitter for well over a year and I’ve made friends and contacts there I would have found it very difficult to find anywhere else. I’m fairly evangelistic about it, I tweet trials and during the recent Eamonn Lillis trial earlier this year that live tweeting really came into it’s own. I was tweeting from my personal account and being listened to by people in so many different newsrooms not to mention the general public. It makes you realise that Twitter is more than just a social tool. It’s a very powerful broadcasting medium.
Now I’m no longer the only journalist tweeting updates from the trials I cover and it’s only a matter of time before the subject comes up for debate within the courtroom. Social media is raising brand new questions about the nature of broadcasting and how journalism is done and some day it’ll need to be discussed properly and ruled on. But I’m not going into the whole issue of live blogging and tweeting in courtrooms. Another time maybe.
What it all boils down to is that the old journalistic adage “If in doubt leave it out”. If you put out news on Twitter it WILL spread. If you’re not willing to stand by what you said or have any doubt about it’s veracity don’t Tweet it. Most of us would do that anyway but there are times on Twitter when you know that your information is solid and you’re left with the decision of whether to share it.
Since we all became our own publishers these questions have become a lot more pressing. It’s going to be a while before they are all hammered out and even when the talking’s all been done it remains to be seen whether news will ever go back to being something that could be easily embargoed by tacit agreement. We’re going to see a lot more leaks like this, it’s simply the nature of the beast.