AJR logo     

    
 AJR  Features

From AJR,   June/July 2011  issue

Spreading Rumors on Twitter   

Why that’s not the way to go Thurs. July 28, 2011


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Talk about a bad idea.

Reuters' Felix Salmon says it's fine for journalists to pass along rumors via Twitter. If it turns out they are bogus, no big deal.

In a post ballyhooed on Romenesko, Salmon wrote, "I think that big flagship Twitter accounts like @Reuters or @WSJ should be held to a higher standard." But for individual reporters, tweet away.

Salmon's post came in the wake of the rumor, circulated on Twitter and soon discredited, that CNN had suspended host Piers Morgan.

Salmon's rationale is that reporters bat rumors back and forth in the newsroom all the time, and Twitter is the new newsroom. But that just doesn't hold up. It's one thing to gossip with a couple of colleagues at the watercooler or at the bar. It's quite another to send completely unsubstantiated information out to the world at large.

Once it's tweeted it can spread pretty quickly, as one Anthony Weiner could tell you. And not all incorrect information is buried as quickly as the Morgan tweet. Sometimes it can do real damage.

One very real fear is that, in our hypercompetitive 24/7 news environment, the premium on speed will lead to rushed, inadequately reported stories that turn out to be wrong. Remember that bleak moment in January when NPR incorrectly reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died. The Salmon approach increases that danger exponentially.

More than ever in the past, a reporter's individual reputation, or brand, matters. With the way people access information now, they are apt to seek out individual writers rather than specific news organizations. And what can damage a reporter's credibility more than distributing bad information?

Also, what's the upside? What does throwing out there something that may or may not be true add to the conversation?

I'll bet British anchor Jon Snow, who tweeted that Morgan had been suspended, would like that one back.

Morgan is a former editor of Rupert Murdoch's now-shuttered News of the World, the focus of Britain's phone–hacking scandal. And questions have been raised about whether he engaged in hacking while he was at the paper (he says no).

Morgan, no stranger to the Twitterverse, quickly responded, "Sorry to disappoint you all, but I'm afraid poor old @jonsnowC4 got duped by a fake Twitter account. I've not been suspended by CNN."

Snow promptly tweeted, "Retraction ahoy..rumour mill produced info on Piers Morgan..was issued on a fake NOW accouint.no truth that Piers Morgan suspended by CNN." He deleted his original tweet.

Finally, while Salmon may regard Twitter as a newsroom, there are plenty of people who see it as a news service. When Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in May, a prevalent meme was that Keith Urbahn, an aide to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, had "broken" the story on Twitter.

In fact, he had done no such thing. He simply passed on a rumor, in this case one that happened to be true. It could just as easily have been false.

What we need is a lot more reporting and a lot less guessing, whether on Twitter or anywhere else. If you haven't checked it out, keep it to yourself – or tell your pals in an actual newsroom.