'Confirmed' and 'sources' may not mean what you think they do on Twitter

Twenty-seven minutes before the AP tweeted that Whitney Houston was dead, Twitter user @chilemasgrande sent this out:

As we now know, he was one of three Twitter users who shared information before AP's tweet launched the news into public consciousness. One user, @BarBeeBritt, tweeted almost an hour before the AP. It's neither notable nor surprising that non-journalists had this information before a major news organization.

There are always people -- we like to call them sources -- who have information prior to it being shared or discovered by the press. They could be experts with specific knowledge or access to information, or someone in the right place at the right time. Maybe, as was the case with at least two of the Whitney Houston tweets, a member of the public knows someone who knows something.

That seems to describe @chilemasgrande. His tweet cited "My sources," while also emphasizing he was in possession of information that wasn't yet "in the news." What's fascinating about his tweet is how parts of it are expressed with a journalistic tone and terms ("My sources say"), while at the same time he emphasizes that journalists themselves ("the news") don't yet have the information. The democratization of media has led many people to use the language of journalism and verification, but what they mean may be very different.

Journalistic language as a red flag

As media technologies are widely adopted, so too is the related terminology. It's a logical progression, but it's also a source of confusion. That was the case during last year's Arab Spring. NPR senior strategist and famed Arab Spring tweeter Andy Carvin raised this point when I asked what makes him suspicious of a tweet. For him, the adoption of journalistic terms (or cliches) by a non-journalist can be a red flag:

“Some of the rumors I see floating around seem to be accompanied by the words ‘breaking’ or ‘confirmed’ or ‘urgent’ all in capital letters,” he said. “I think it’s partially because you’ve got people on the ground in the Middle East hearing information and they’ve very excited about getting it, or feel like it needs to be out there as quickly as possible. They start using phrases that reporters use but they are using them in a very different way.”

When he sees these terms used, Carvin often replies and asks for additional details, for pictures and video. Or he will quote the tweet and add a simple one word question to the front of the message: Source?

Carvin spent enough time looking at the information behind the claims of "confirmed" or "breaking" tweets to realize people deployed these terms in ways that were different from how media organizations typically use them.

Carvin's point was echoed by the leader of CNN's iReport initiative, Lila King, when we spoke about what types of submissions cause concern:

“It’s a story that’s actually written very much like a [traditional] news story,” King said. “It’s like 800 words with very short paragraphs and a dateline at the top with a standard newspaper lead. That, for us, tends to be a flag that someone has just copy and pasted from some other place.”

Citizens often used those conventions to help attract attention to what they are saying, not necessarily to provide context or cues for verification. That suggests at the very least an unconscious realization that wrapping their information in the language of news can help attract greater attention -- or encourage journalists to amplify their message.

Just as journalists are being pushed to engage more with the public and work collaboratively, citizens are being pulled towards our sphere as they engage and adopt tools and technologies that offer them the ability to report and share news.

The forces pushing and pulling us together naturally cause us each to adopt from one other. But the public's understanding of these terms can be different from a journalist's understanding of them. What we need is a shared vocabulary that can create better understanding and imbue short messages such as tweets with more clarity.

Houston tweets illustrate credibility gap

The first Whitney Houston death tweet one came close to an hour before AP's, from@BarBeeBritt:

Pullard had heard the news but wasn't sure whether it was true, so she sought confirmation on Twitter. It's a remarkable thing for the average person to know they can put something out on Twitter or Facebook and believe there's a chance, perhaps a good one, of receiving actionable feedback.

The natural human tendency to receive newsworthy information and immediately share it is amplified and made more powerful and useful by our networks. Over time, people have come to realize their followers and friends are a powerful force for crowdsourcing verification. No surprise, then, that the language used by journalists when sharing news or seeking verification can sometimes be adopted. After all, we're using these networks for the same purpose.

Now here's @AjaDiorNavy sharing the news:

She's citing her source, and detailing how that source obtained the news. Perhaps without consciously making an effort to provide the information in a credible format, she has done exactly that -- and without using any kind of journalist cliche or terms. Though both tweets ended up being true, it's interesting to see how much more credible @AjaDiorNavy's tweet is than the one sent by @chilemasgrande. Let's look at his again:

"My sources" is a pretty classic journalistic way of prefacing information. Sources tell CNN... Sources close to the singer... Sources close to the deal... My sources inside the company...

You've heard it before from professional journalists. Of course, it's also a cliche -- one of those phrases that is overused (like "exclusive") and offers little value unless we're told something about the sources.

In contrast, @AjaDiorNavy made a point of stating her source and that source's relationship to the story. She provided evidence as to why you should pay attention to her information, rather than being vague and citing general "sources." Interestingly, that's exactly how AP wrote its Houston Tweet:

Ditch the cliched "breaking" label at the front and you end up with a more authentic tweet, not unlike the one sent 45 minutes before by Aja Dior -- and both were correct.

  • Craig Silverman

    Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends regarding accuracy and verification.


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