News lovers beware. (Image courtesy of the talented Eleanor Rudge)
The breakdown: Robert Stribley discusses how a recent national tragedy was covered in the Huffington Post through a consolidation of local tweets. What’s the impact of using these Twitter lists on citizen journalism? Read on to find out.
“Good lord, is this hen scratch they call tweeting REALLY supposed to keep us informed?” – goodog, Comment posted 06:10 PM on 11/05/2009, The Huffington Post
Late last week unwitting citizens of Fort Hood, Texas suddenly found themselves serving as national correspondents, when the news-aggregation site Huffington Post began livecasting their tweets. HuffPo corralled their tweets via Twitter Lists and presented them within a Twitter widget—both shiny, new features the micro-blogging service had released just days before. The implementation by the Huffington Post was somewhat shoddy. As of this moment, it’s still running.
Some background: On Thursday, November 5th, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan began a shooting rampage at the Fort Hood military base that left 13 service men and women dead and 29 injured. In an attempt to tap into local reactions to the event, The Huffington Post set up the Fort Hood List and began streaming the tweets of people whose profiles indicated they lived in the area. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.
HuffPo should have considered the impact of posting random tweets simply based upon their geographic location. Instead they let loose with a torrent, and the results, as people quickly noted, weren’t pretty. Don’t get me wrong: There were some poignant and informative tweets. However, many of them weren’t particularly relevant, were inaccurate, or made little sense out of context.
iTraceyRenee: watchin Gucci Mane ft Usher – Spotlight Video
Barbaramagana: Writing blog. hmm what will the topic be!!!
RicoRossi: I’m about to go assist in oral surgery, ill tweet later
sunnylena: @ArmyBarbieGirl do u have children?
One 17-year-old participant mentioned the Fort Hood incident precisely once, before resuming her random, typically sexually explicit tweets. Which are still being posted to HuffPo, as of this moment.
A few issues are at play here. Let’s take a quick look at them.
Security by Obscurity
Ideally, people should be made aware when their tweets are being broadcast in a more prominent venue. Now, arguably, the whole point of Twitter is to disseminate information in a public venue. And, by publishing content to Twitter (and, increasingly, Facebook, too), folks are engaging in a privacy transaction each time wherein they tacitly agree to make their content public. Unless they make their profiles private. For better or worse, people depend on “security by obscurity” where Twitter’s concerned. They realize their tweets are observable (one would hope), but they sometimes depend on their mutterings being lost in the noise. As we all continue living our lives more publicly, we’ll probably adapt and learn that security by obscurity is a myth.
In the meantime, publishing people’s tweets at such a visible level raises some issues. For example, in an internal conversation, Razorfish content strategist Rachel Lovinger suggested that HuffPo did Tweeters an injustice by publishing their tweets out of context:
It makes me wince that the top comment from a local says “Andy Pettitte, Houston misses you!!” I feel embarrassed for the person who said it and is going to be judged as shallow and insensitive, just because she used her Twitter account the way she always uses it, perhaps not aware that she’s now an unfiltered spokesperson for her troubled community.
How to avoid this context problem? Tweets should be curated, of course, at least automatically by keyword, if not manually. When they published their Twitter list, HuffPo claimed, “we’re capturing all the tweeted updates related to the terrible events at Fort Hood. This search is targeted, filtered, and local.”
Really? Targeted and local? Somewhat. Filtered? Not so much.
The first thing I thought upon seeing the Huffington Post widget was that many of the tweets weren’t remotely relevant. It desperately needed some curation. Of course, Twitter lists aren’t currently set up to do that. Since HuffPo couldn’t do the filtering, they put the onus on us. And why should we take on the cognitive burden of filtering out irrelevant, often inaccurate information? We came looking for signal, not noise.
Accuracy & Authenticity
For a news-oriented site, of course, accuracy should be the weightiest concern of all: by placing those tweets on their site, The Huffington Post amplified some misinformation, a problem more serious journalistic enterprises would be excoriated for.
Some have suggested we shouldn’t expect a high level of accuracy from real-time, citizen journalism. Perhaps. But relying on it is a mistake we’re seeing all too often. A more stringent process for participation certainly would’ve helped in this case.
Maybe we’re entering an age where – more than ever – news needs to be viewed with the admonition Caveat Lector, “Let the Reader Beware!” We should certainly maintain a healthy sense of skepticism when reviewing content, which comes our way. But news practitioners – and aggregators – should also be aware of the damage that the careless use of such information does to their sense of authority.
Unless sensationalism, not authority, is what they’re really aiming for, of course.
Columbia Journalism Review, “Fort Hood: A First Test for Twitter Lists”
Paul Carr, TechCrunch, “After Fort Hood, Another Example of How ‘citizen Journalists’ Can’t Handle the Truth”
Matthew Ingram, “Citizen Journalism: I’ll Take It Flaws and All”