AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

The Twitter Death Epidemic   

All of the bogus tweets about celebrity deaths underscore why it’s silly to assert that Twitter “beat” the news media in reporting Whitney Houston’s demise. Tues., February 28, 2012.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

Is Twitter breaking news now? Is that a thing?

Unless Twitter employs people who source and fact-check the information that ricochets through its network, the answer is no, Twitter does not break news. Individuals and organizations may use Twitter as a vehicle for breaking news, but that's not the same thing as Twitter breaking news.

Yet some bloggers and media Web sites use language that suggests otherwise. Following Whitney Houston's death on February 11, the media site Mashable.com ran the headline, "Twitter Breaks News of Whitney Houston Death 27 Minutes Before Press." The story and headline were picked up by Yahoo! News and numerous media sites and blogs. In the past, Twitter has also been given credit by bloggers as having broken the news of the deaths of Osama bin Laden and singer Amy Winehouse.

While they might not mean it literally, bloggers and news organizations that credit Twitter and other social networks with "reporting" or "breaking" news are implying a contest between social networks and the press, in which lumbering news organizations are smacked down by a faster and more agile rival. And what journalist with healthy competitive instincts wouldn't feel a bit goaded or threatened by that? The far less provocative truth is that the media are working through Twitter, not racing against it.

Here's a timeline of the Whitney Houston Twitter activity that was eventually pieced together by a Twitter employee:

• 4:02 p.m. PT on Saturday, February 11: @BarBeeBritt asks, "Is Whitney Houston really dead?"

• 4:15 p.m.: @AjaDiorNavy tweets, "omgg , my aunt tiffany who work for whitney houston just found whitney houston dead in the tub . such ashame & sad :-(.""

• 4:30 p.m.: @chilemasgrande tweets, "My sources say Whitney Houston found dead in Beverly hills hotel.. Not in the news yet!!" (Presumably this is the post to which Mashable was referring when stating that Twitter broke the news 27 minutes ahead of the press.)

• 4:57 p.m.: The Associated Press is the first media outlet to announce the news. The Twitterverse explodes, going from near-zero to 2.5 million tweets mentioning Whitney Houston by 6 p.m.

While nearly an hour passed between the first known mention of Houston's death and the AP's report, Twitter's timeline clearly shows that the story flatlined until the AP tweet. It was that properly attributed post by a credible news organization with a broad following that broke through the noise.

The relatively few people who saw the initial Whitney Houston tweets had reason to be extremely skeptical. Social media death hoaxes have befallen countless very-much-alive public figures, including President Obama, Lady Gaga, Eddie Murphy, Jon Bon Jovi and Chuck Norris (who, as fans noted, is invincible and cannot be killed). "Twitter Death" has become a near-daily occurrence, prompting a great many users to respond with caution when they hear that Madonna, Jackie Chan or Snooki has gone to the great beyond.

In that context, it's tough to make the case that a handful of dubiously sourced Twitter posts by unknown individuals with relatively small followings broke the news of Houston's death in any meaningful way. Those early tweets were indistinguishable from other celebrity death rumors, except that they turned out to be true.

Other examples might be more nuanced. In the case of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. forces in 2011, the first documented report came from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's chief of staff, who tweeted, "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama bin Laden... Don't know if it's true, but let's pray it is." Within minutes, anonymous Pentagon and White House sources began sharing the same information with the press, leading to earlier-than-planned reporting of the story, according to The New York Times.

In that case, the first person to tweet the information had far more credibility than the individuals who first tweeted about Whitney Houston's death―and his exuberant tweet may have had a direct impact the news cycle. But, as he noted, the information was rumor until news outlets confirmed and carried the story forward.

No doubt, social networks have introduced a dynamic to the news ecosystem that didn't really exist before. Now, conversations that might have occurred between a few individuals can be amplified exponentially to hundreds or thousands of people within minutes. Information that was once mediated and filtered by news organizations can be shared peer-to-peer. That's not scary or threatening; it's just the new normal.

Rather than marginalizing the news media, Twitter and other social networks may be reinforcing their value. A generation of social media users is learning―through debunked reports and hoaxes ―the difference between saying something and reporting it. The ways in which people first hear information may have changed, but their reliance on reporters to separate fact from fiction and provide depth and context to the news has not.

In this particular aspect of the Whitney Houston story, the media actually performed well. The AP and other news organizations reported accurate information, quickly, and leveraged social media to do it. That might not sound as exciting as "Twitter Beats the Press," but it's closer to the truth.