Why the talk about Twitter users ‘breaking’ news of Houston’s death before media?

AllTwitter | Twitter Comms
AllTwitter uses a graphic created by a Twitter employee to show how a regular Twitter user “broke news of Whitney Houston’s death an HOUR before the press.” Judge for yourself whether the tweet broke much of anything:

AllTwitter’s Shea Bennett writes of the AP’s tweet:

Amazingly, [it was sent] almost a whole hour after the news had first broke on Twitter, with a 1602 PST message from a single user starting a run of activity that saw 2.5 million Whitney Houston-related tweets sent over the next two hours. …

While it’s fair to say that @BarBeeBritt’s tweet didn’t make a huge impact on Twitter – it led to just 3 retweets, after all – the story does appear to have “started” with her on the network.

Rather than showing that anything started with this tweet, I think it shows – along with the other two early tweets that said Houston had died — how hard it is for journalists to find early, reliable accounts of newsworthy events. (To be clear, I don’t know enough about these Twitter users to know if they were reliable.) That’s the problem that researcher Nick Diakopoulos has tried to solve. He and two other researchers created a prototype of a tool that would search for keywords in tweets in order to sniff out eyewitnesses to newsworthy events.

I don’t know whether that tool in particular has a future, but there is a clear need for a programmatic solution to this problem. I expect that someone will figure this out, and that journalists will soon start to find more of these people while news is breaking, not after.

Another take on Houston’s death: Rather than demonstrating how slow news orgs were to report it, perhaps it shows how fast they are. Within an hour of the first suggestion of Houston’s death, the AP got enough information to report with confidence that she had died.

Confirming someone’s death is a high-stakes, intense reporting challenge. The AP has demonstrated its experience in such situations, most recently with the death of Joe Paterno. So maybe the headlines should be “AP confirms Whitney Houston’s death an HOUR of first clues on Twitter.” || Related: Melanie Sill writes, “What’s more interesting, and challenging, than ‘Twitter-versus-the-press’ is ‘Twitter and the press.’ “

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kkenedy Kristen Kenedy

    Here’s a thought: Instead of worrying about who got the Whitney Houston news first, someone could worry about the thousands of people who are dying from starvation every day. With all respect, because a death is always a sad thing, the obsession over it is mind boggling. I’d be much more interested to hear why the news media feels compelled waste limited resources on covering the play-by-play. Seems like “citizen journalists” are doing this just fine.

  • Anonymous

    “Is Whitney Houston really dead?” Down here in the sticks – Miami – we call that a question, not a statement of fact.

    But let’s assume that @BarBeeBritt had some hard information. Did she call the hotel, the cops, the fire department, or Houston’s publicist to confirm? We all know the answer to that question.

    I don’t care if someone actually saw her dead and Tweeted non-stop for 30 minutes, it still has to be confirmed.

    As for Twitter breaking news. Whatever. A few weeks ago, Twitter users reported that Fidel Castro was dead.

  • Anonymous

    and exactly what was the virtue of the twitter universe learning of ms. houston’s death 3 minutes (or however fast it was) before it hit the wires? what benefit was it?

    the old trio of networks are largely responsible for this ludicrous compulsion to “get it first.” they boasted for years when they “beat the competition” by a minute or two. it was meaningless then and it’s more meaningless now.

    got it, twits?

  • Anonymous

    twitter may not have broken the news, but it broke the news to those on twitter. get it? twitter was the avenue to which they turned, were turned, when official news accounts (if you can count TMZ) were posted.

  • Anonymous

    At some point we are going to stop obsessing over Twitter’s amazing ability to “break news.” It is stupid scorekeeping.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alain-Ochoa/100001553179594 Alain Ochoa

    Well done. The “Twitter got it first” fever is nonsense.