Jim Carroll

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To tweet or not to tweet

Like many of you, I learned about the sudden death of RTE broadcaster Gerry Ryan via Twitter. It was, I can safely say, the first time I’ve seen a news story “break” via Twitter, though it makes me wonder if …

Tue, May 4, 2010, 11:58


Like many of you, I learned about the sudden death of RTE broadcaster Gerry Ryan via Twitter. It was, I can safely say, the first time I’ve seen a news story “break” via Twitter, though it makes me wonder if “break” is the right word to use. Isn’t “breaking a news story” about being certain of your facts and knowing that you have a story which others don’t have, instead of simply being first with a rumour?

In the space of 15 minutes (you can check the timeline here), this story went from one or two slightly unsure tweets asking couched questions about Ryan to a flood of messages about his death (including the now infamous withdrawn tweet from Ryan’s fellow RTE broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan). There was also an interesting to-do between a number of journalists from two Sunday newspapers about morals and ethics, which some found akin to two bald men fighting over a comb. Man, if you’re not on Twitter these days, you’re really missing out.

In the early part of Friday afternoon, though, it was a case of unsubstantiated rumours and unconfirmed sources all groping for space in the dark. Not one of those early tweets was written with any certainty. They couldn’t be, because there was, as of then, no confirmation of the story. If a journalist did have confirmation of the facts, he or she was not prepared to call it as “confirmed” for various reasons. It was, as if often the case on Twitter, pure and simple speculation. There may have been journalists involved in the speculative process, but this shouldn’t make it any different – and here’s where things get interesting.

This story perfectly highlights how we in the media use and abuse Twitter. As has been the case with all social media tools since newsdesks discovered the joys of photo galleries on Bebo, hacks use Twitter all the time to find out about stories and to talk to contacts (look at how the volcano-related travel chaos from the last few weeks was reported, for instance). Some even use it to cause a little mischief.

We don’t, by and large, use Twitter to break stories because our respective editors would give us a bollocking for that. Breaking stories still means sticking them online or in print and using Twitter to point people towards these. Breaking a story in 140 characters or less is not (yet) how newsrooms work. Yes, there are some stories which will appear on Twitter first, but this is usually when one hack gets a press release from his or her PR pimp or industry source a few hours before anyone else. In fairness, that’s really about being good at cutting and pasting rather than breaking a news story.

What happened on this occasion was that an irresistible force (the informality of Twitter and how quickly a story gains ground) met an immovable object (the widely held belief that journalists only write about stories when they’re confirmed). Because there were journalists tweeting about the story before it had been confirmed in the usual way – and the sources for a confirmed story appear to remain the same in the new media world as they did in the old one – the story was immediately taken to be true. Even in an informal, anything-goes environment like Twitter, a journalist’s rep still seems to carry some weight which, I suppose, is something to be slightly cheerful about in these times of doom and gloom for the industry.

The fact remains, though, that a number of journalists were tweeting about this story before it was confirmed. A story of this kind would never have been carried in a million years without confirmation in their newspapers or on their websites. It may also have been the case that these public tweets were doing the rounds before some members of the late broadcaster’s family even learned about his death. Again, most newspapers would shy away from publishing a story in these circumstances.

While those who “broke” the story on Twitter will defend what they did on many grounds – the story was already out there, they had sources, it was in the public interest etc – it’s still the case that journalists were hopping onto a publishing platform other than their own newspaper to “break” a story. The need to be first, it appears, overcame all other concerns.

One argument which I’ve heard a few times over the last few days is that Twitter is somehow different to other publishing platforms. Let’s knock that one on the head rather quickly. Anything which is posted on Twitter is in the public domain. It’s up there with millions of other tweets and will appear in countless streams of information. Some people will ignore it but others, by virtue of who is doing the tweeting, will take it with a certain amount of credence. You may think of Twitter as a casual conversation between yourself and your followers about the football at the weekend, while others see it as a fantastic way to get news stories before they hit the mainstream media. Some call it a conversation and some call it publishing.

I’d wager that there will be a few media organisations drawing up or redrafting guidelines this week about the use of social media networks in the workplace, with particular emphasis on Twitter. You might claim that your views on Twitter do not reflect those of your newspaper, but is this really the case when the journalist and newspaper are so closely associated in the public mind? Last Friday’s episode won’t be the last time the ins and outs of Twitter become part of a big news story.

For more on this, see Sunday Business Post reporter Adrian Weckler’s post, Una Mullally’s piece from the Sunday Tribune and a very good post from Abigail Rieley.