Tuesday, April 05, 2011
Does everyone on Twitter need to go on a journalism course?

I found myself in the middle of an *actual* news event yesterday, as Met Police officers shut down Covent Garden due to a suspected car bomb.

We had the perfect view of the action, so (in spite of being told by the police and the building manager to stay away from the windows) I decided to 'live tweet' what was happening. I honestly felt that it was my duty.

Very quickly, my Twitter profile was trending in London, and then in the UK (on Trendsmap.com). People realised I was sharing the details in real time and started to retweet me.

The incident took around 45 minutes from the moment the police taped off the area until the innocent bloke returned to his car to find it surrounded, the windows smashed in, and his gas canisters removed.

Anyone remember the Oxford Street shooting? Someone's tweet (about a completely harmless photoshoot on London's Oxford Street) sparked a web-wide panic attack when people starting tweeting about it.

Well, I remembered it. And I was determined not to start another one.

So I stuck to the truth. I tweeted the facts. I didn't retweet anyone who was being dramatic, or not openly sourcing their facts. I took pictures, and only shared information that was confirmed by our operations manager or the police directly to me. If it wasn't, I disclosed.

But I'm not normal, am I?

I trained as a journalist for three years at university. I worked as a journalist between 1998 and 2005. I learnt what journalism stands for, how to source people properly (including how to protect them - including going to prison before I reveal them!), how not to libel someone, and why the fourth estate is a critical part of our political system. The NUJ Code of Conduct was drummed into me every single day between 1994 and 2005.

Unfortunately, not everyone has had that training. A lot of the other tweets from people around the area were far more provocative. And they certainly weren't true.

Overall, humans were doing what humans do. Huddling, gossiping, sharing information, coming to premature conclusions. It's in our nature, and that kind of public interaction has changed the way we collectively make decisions for the better. I'd argue with you forever that Twitter has revolutionised national and international communication, decision making, and democracy.

But when something happens, and people outside of those small groups are able to listen in without context, you get a skewed version of events.

This is why journalism is so vital - whatever you think, it's designed to cut through hearsay and speculation and present the truth. Truth that's based on facts. Facts that a journalist has taken great care to source, and double source.

Nowadays, people get their news from a multitude of places. Where the TV used to be the closest thing to a real-time news outlet, Twitter has taken over. TV stations do far more analysis. Daily papers stick to features, reality stories and (sometimes) blatant scaremongering to keep their readership.

My worry is that most people who find themselves in a position of responsibility when there is some news that needs to be shared don't have the training to share responsibly. In most of these cases, we end up with just another Oxford Street Shooting.

So, in a world where real-time information is something we all crave, how do we rely on each other to tell us all how it really is?