Two things happened in London in the space of 24 hours that, once again, had me – and plenty of others – musing on the role of Twitter as a channel for breaking news.
On Thursday 26 April, there was an incident on the Bakerloo line of the London Underground (that’s the brown one).
I learned about it first thanks to twitter. But here’s what I learned. I learned that something had happened – it might have been a tube train crash, or a collapsed tunnel, or a train might have hit a bulge in the wall of a tunnel, or the tunnel might be flooded, or some plasterwork might have fallen off the tunnel walls onto the track, or there might have been a terrorist attack.
My, what a lot of things I learned from Twitter that morning.
I looked online at some reputable news providers’ websites to see what I might learn from them. It took a while for the news to appear on the likes of the BBC or the Evening Standard websites. As is right and proper.
On Friday 27 April, news broke on Twitter that there had been a bomb scare on Tottenham Court Road (a very busy shopping street, complete with a major theatre, lots of offices, pubs, restaurants etc, and a tube station that was featured in An American Werewolf in London). There were pics too.
Someone observed that the bomb scare (which during the time I was writing this piece morphed into a hostage situation) had been trending on Twitter for half an hour, but still no mention on the mainstream news sites…. prompting one person to ask “do we need 24hr news channels anymore?” (@mattaudley)
The story was still developing while I was writing, but this is the BBC’s take on it. And as of the time I published this piece, there were no reports of injuries – I can only hope that stays the case.
Responsible journalism demands that stories are confirmed (“stood up” in the vernacular). That you have more than one source to corroborate the lead or rumour, and that you explore the facts. At its heart the job of the journalist is to find out what is actually going on and present people with reliable facts*. Otherwise news is nothing more than a lot of rumour and speculation.
There is (and will always be) a role for traditional journalism and regular news outlets – it’s in cutting through the confusion and presenting people with the facts.
That’s something Twitter will never be able to do, because even if one tweet gets immediately to the heart of the matter, the next 50 might offer nothing but fear, uncertainty and doubt. And how on earth is one to tell the difference.
* footnote: anyone who tells you journalism is all about getting to “the truth” is either a self-aggrandising liar, or a fool.