"If your mother says she loves you, get a second source."
That's an old saying in the journalism business. It's always sounded like a crusty old bromide that a rumpled reporter would tell the new kid fresh out of college. But crusty old bromides become crusty old bromides because they're true. The point of the saying is that a reporter should never rely on a single source, no matter how trustworthy or knowledgable he or she may be. The valued information in newsrooms is information that's been verified by multiple knowledgabe sources. Do reporters always do this? Of course not. But that's the ideal.
And it's even more important in this new Twitter age, in which information is flying faster than ever and the thirst for instant information is even greater.
Which brings us to this provacatively titeld piece from Jason Schrier called "Why you should stop trusting Twitter" which revolves around the antics of @NFLDraftInsider. (The permalink is even more provocative: Twitter killing journalism). @NFLDraftInsider is a Twitter user who passes along NFL rumors, which are in high demand now that the lockout's over and free agency is starting. The problem is, he apparently doesn't independently verify any of them. He passes along the tips he receives. Schrier took full advantage of this, making up rumors and even inventing a player from Binghamton. Which is funny on two levels.
- As someone who covered Binghamton's athletic department, I can assure you the school has no football team and no NFL prospects.
- I saw on Twitter that the guys in my old newsroom had noticed this, too and had to check it out (of course, it was quickly found to be untrue).
@NFLDraftInsider responded to this and other falsities: Some idiots have slipped a few fake names/teams by me. All this info isn't one hundred percent official until tomorrow. I'm doing my best.
"BTW I'm not a journalist, just wanted to tell fans their teams (undrafted free agents) cause the weren't avail. I want to inform & was given 'confirmed' lies."
A few thoughts:
- If you've ever wondered by so many traditional media members seem to seize up when the phrase "citizen journalism" comes up, this is why. Think of the guys in my old newsroom in Binghamton. It's late Sunday night, on deadline, and now they're forced to scramble against the clock to find information about this guy they've never heard of from a school that doesn't even have a football team because someone posted it on the internet as fact. They can't just blow it off. They have to check it to make sure. They have to take time out of the night, on deadline (when they're crunched and trying to get a paper out) to look into this. All because somebody didn't check out a tip they received online and spread it as "truth" because "a source told them." This drives reporters bat guano.
- @NFLDraftInsider claims to not be a journalist. True. Problem is, on Twitter, he's acting like one. If you're going to act like a journalist, you have to accept the standards of the profession. Also ... the "I was given confirmed lies" portion of the program: We've all been there. We've all been burned by sources. We've all had sources lie to us, mislead us, or just flat out be wrong. But you know what that is? Often times, that's an excuse. I know. I used it myself, and was wrong when I did. A source being wrong does not absolve you of your duty to make sure you get it right. That's where the crusty old bromide comes into play.
- One of the more important points going forward isn't how one guy passing along anonymous rumors got burned by people screwing with him. It's the fact that mainstream reporters are apparently retweeting these. Retweeting is an interesting thing for reporters. In a way, it's the ultimate CYA. Someone puts a rumor out there, you retweet it. Hey, someone else said it, not me. I'm just keeping the conversation going. It's just Twitter. But that's how false information gets spread around like it's true. And once a reporter from a traditional outlet retweets something, it's given a boost of credibility.
It's a tough balance for reporters. On one hand, they want to be right. There's a strong professional desire to publish the truth. But on the other hand, one of the tenenants of social media news use seems to be that what matters is the conversation. Items like this generate conversation. But if they're not true, is that conversation meaningful?
This is not an anti-Twitter thing. Twitter's just the pipes, just the method through which information passes. This was happening on blogs and message boards before Twitter. Now, it's all just faster. Now, there's more pressure on reporters to not just find the information but manage a conversation about it. That conversation is usually great. But to think it doesn't come with a price is ludicrous. One of the things I'm finding in my research is that the reporting model seems to be shifting from the old "gather, sort, report" mindset (get the information, sort it all out than publish it) to "gather, report than sort." Which opens the door for all sorts of problems.
Ideally, I'd love for fans to become smarter consumers. To be able to tell a rumor site from a fact site. To not take what they see on Twitter as gospel, no matter what handle it comes from. No not demand instant information from reporters who have to try to actually report on the news (and also eat, sleep and see their kids sometimes). But that's not the fans' job. That's a reporter's job. I've often thought that one of the main roles a news organzation can play now is not so much the breaker of news but as the verifier of information. The mindset would be: If you see it on our site, on one of our Twitter feeds, you can be sure it's accurate to the best of our ability. Because we've done the legwork. We've done the reporting that you don't have the time or ability to do.
The lesson here: If Twitter says your favorite team's signing some one, get a second source.
What's everyone else think?