"The trick is to find the source of it," Jacob Sanders, Post-Gazette breaking news editor, said about the tweeted information. "Context is important, and as far as I'm concerned it [posting online or tweeting information] cannot move faster than your reporting."
For a brief time last summer, hackers used @FoxNewsPolitics on Twitter to declare President Obama shot dead. But the tweet was so outlandish and easily discredited, the "news" quickly died.
Not so Feb. 11, when @AjaDiorNavy tweeted "omgg, my aunt tiffany who work for whitney houston just found whitney houston dead in the tub. such ashame & sad. : -- (
According to Topsy Labs, which measures the strength of social media news, the information generated 2.5 million tweets and retweets in the first hour. In this case, the news was real.
Reuters' DeRosa said that when it comes to reporting what began in social media, life and death is just that. "I am more careful about this type of tweet than any other," he said. "You don't want to mis-report someone's death so I will hold off until I get information from a legitimate source and can then trace it back to another legit source, where both got it independently."
Other examples of Twitter sounding the first alarms of big news include the man who took a photo from a ferry of the USAirways "Miracle on the Hudson" flight, and IT guy Sohaib Athar accidentally live tweeting about the first stirrings of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.
In fact, the Twitterverse was alive with credible news relating to the raid and bin Laden's death well before the official White House announcement.
"People are starting to wake up and smell the coffee, to see that citizen journalists can bring something to the table," CMU's Lightman said.
He said a great example was the G-20 summit in London, where the BBC and the Guardian newspaper equipped staffers with social media tools. When reports of violence broke out, they were able to report back quickly to their editors to send more reporters.
"I think that's where things are heading, toward a lot more collaboration. This is not a passing fad," Lightman said.
But what to make of outright erroneous reports? Anyone can kill off a celebrity. There are a number of companies, including Lithium and Radian6, that monitor social media and will provide clients with tools to understand data across a variety of platforms.
A joint project from Rutgers University and Microsoft created "Seriously Rapid Source Review" (SRSR), which helps journalists determine what is trustworthy by determining where social media input is coming from, how it is gathered and filtering out what is likely unreliable information.
SRSR acknowledges that a lot of social media content is provided by non-journalists, but that eyewitness reports such as the one about Ms. Houston can be credible if supported by other factors.
Services such as SRSR can be helpful in this era of 24/7 news coverage where there's as much pressure of "getting it first" as "getting it right." Citizen journalism exploded with the rise of Twitter, where for some, retweeting is an obsession.
"This gets into behavior patterns: Why do people retweet stuff?" Lightman said. "It might be because we believe in spreading awareness, and some of the content might not be of a factual nature but just something they think their followers should know about."
Journalists and everyone else using social media will continue to have to struggle to sort the factual from the false. "But when you get down to it," Lightman said, "the utility and value of Twitter surpasses all that other crap."
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