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.' "

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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