Case Study 7 & 7.1: Twitter as a window to the human experience

13 Mar

Live-tweeting has become one of the most popular ways to maximize Twitter’s microblogging functionality. From awards shows to sporting events, users can get second-t0-second updates about almost anything. However, sometimes the citizen journalism mentality can toe the line. Web developer Andy Boyle took it upon himself to live-tweet a breakup between a married couple in a Burger King, complete with a video recording uploaded to yFrog and multiple Instagram photos taken from his mobile phone. The primary ethical question involves the invasion of privacy of this couple’s problematic moment, as well as taking photos and recording them without their consent. However, these ethical issues are generally regarded as standards to maintain journalistic integrity — but is this actually journalism in the first place? I’d have to say no.

A journalist is generally defined by one who pursues news for a career or established media outlet. However, the idea of “citizen journalism” means the Average Joe with a smartphone can capture important events and news. But what does that loose term even mean in the first place? Personally, I feel the intrinsic definition of journalism is some higher obligation to the public to provide people with information they should know. International affairs and celebrity gossip alike share the ideal that the information they provide to the public will, in some way, serve them well. Therefore, true citizen journalists too share this idea.

The information Boyle presented in his multimedia bonanza was hardly imperative to the public, and I believe he viewed it merely as an amusing anecdote that he had the ability to capture. Therefore, his ethical choices are highly personal and not rooted in journalistic standards. Boyle’s choice to publish the story was more amusing than distasteful (and the fact that it took place in a very public forum doesn’t make it unethical in my opinion since it was their choice to air their dirty laundry in a family restaurant), but I do believe the fact that he chose to include incriminating photos and video that could possibly identify the couple to a national audience was in very poor taste.

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Breaking news in the Twitter age means a quick dispersion of information, and news outlets are now using this to their advantage. CNN has their iReport system in place specifically for people to send in photos and video they capture on their mobile device, and news outlets have also been tweeting news almost immediately as it’s made available. BBC Breaking made a call to people who may have been in the Liege area during the grenade attack in December and had initially reported “several men” involved in the incident (which they later corrected in their web article to only one). BBC’s web article was also published with the same immediacy as the tweets, whereas RTE News seemed to wait a couple hours before posting any information.

Although it is understandable that the BBC would want to get the story out as soon as possible, not taking the time to confirm facts before letting them loose on the web opened themselves up for multiple fact errors. Reuters has been responsible for the same kind of tweet-before-you-think inaccuracies, such as perpetuating the rumor that Rep. Gabrielle Gifford died after being shot. NPR also took a lot of heat after retweeting Reuters without checking the facts any further themselves. Entirely false reports often lead to rumors of celebrities‘ deaths who are alive and well (which has inexplicably happened to Bill Cosby multiple times and has prompted actor Jeff Goldblum to respond on Comedy Central). In the wake of incidents like these, BBC News has instituted a new guideline to not break stories on Twitter before consulting their colleagues in the newsroom. Sky News has also recently instituted a policy that forbids their journalists to retweet or post information from Twitter users who are not fellow Sky News employees.

If Twitter continues to report news unchecked, it must surrender claim as a reliable news source and admit its true form: a meaningless caricature of blogging. – Michael Roe, The Mirador

Just as the case with the Jimmy’s World and Eagle Snatches Dog case studies, the lesson learned the hard way involves the editors simply not giving fact checking the diligence it is due for these stories. Especially in these times in which information is circulated quickly without a filter, journalists have a responsibility to the public to convey facts and a sense of credibility and responsibility, potentially at the expense of breaking the story first.

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