How Twitter’s breaking the news

It’s 2.30pm on 22 May 2013, and at the top of the BBC News website is a brief story about a man being “attacked” in the street in Woolwich, south London. The story is remarkable for its ordinariness: a man has been the victim of an assault outside an army barracks and police are attending the scene, the BBC reports. Street crime in south London isn’t exactly rare. It wouldn’t usually make the front page of the local newspaper, let alone the top of the BBC News website. What the hell is going on?

How Twitter's breaking the news

The real story is breaking on Twitter, and hell isn’t an entirely inaccurate description as a local musician out buying fruit and veg suddenly becomes a frontline reporter.

“Ohhhhh myyyy God!!!! I just see a man with his head chopped off right in front of my eyes!” tweets @Boyadee, in a message that’s rapidly retweeted tens of thousands of times.

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“Oh my God!!!! The way Feds took them out!!! It was a female police officer she come out the whip and just started bussssin shots!!” His reporting style is some way from the BBC style guide, but he’s got everyone’s attention.

“The first guy goes for the female fed with the machete and she not even ramping she took man out like robocop never seen nutn like it.”

“Then the next breda try buss off the rusty 45 and it just backfires and blows mans finger clean off… Feds didnt pet to just take him out!!”

Meanwhile, the detail-free BBC report remains largely unchanged at the top of the site, its editors clearly aware that a major, horrifying incident is taking place but hamstrung by the (arguably admirable) requirement to double-check facts before reporting them to the world. And so the BBC continues to run an incongruous-looking but factually correct story at the top of the site, while anyone with a Twitter account is following the gruesome commentary from those at the scene.

Before the BBC or any other broadcaster has time to get a camera crew to the scene, a passer-by uses his smartphone to record an extraordinary monologue by one of the alleged attackers, who’s gripping what appears to be a meat clever in his bloodied hands. Traditional media uses its last remaining trump card – money – to acquire the footage, with ITV News claiming the exclusive rights to the video for its early evening broadcast, but this is undoubtedly an event where Twitter and so-called citizen journalists have outshone the professionals. And it’s by no means the first.

The Arab Spring, the London riots, the Boston bombings – these are all major events where Twitter and social media have set the news agenda. But what impact is this rush of amateur news reporting having on the news itself? How do broadcasters and newspapers compete when they’re beaten to almost every major incident by a hundred bystanders with smartphones? And is it now the case that the news professionals are copying the amateurs, and not the other way round?

Boston bombings

The bombings at the Boston Marathon last April offered a prime illustration of social media at its unmatchable best and its appalling worst when it comes to covering major news stories. Although television broadcasters and newspapers were already at the scene to cover the marathon, the most illuminating early reports of the attack emerged from Twitter.

Almost immediately after the first blast, eyewitnesses began to describe and photograph the incident. A map created after the event recorded more than half a million individual tweets about the attack from within the Boston area in the following three hours. Twitter’s echo chamber effect saw those early tweets rebound around the world millions of times, giving distant observers a handful of accounts to latch on to for live updates while news crews hurried to the scene.

Traditional media outlets were immediately on the back foot, and were receiving their updates from Twitter like the rest of us. People switching on the TV to watch the news unfold were disappointed to find broadcasters lagging behind what they were reading on their PCs and smartphones. Even The Boston Globe – which had no excuse for not having reporters on the scene – temporarily handed over its homepage to a live Twitter feed, retweeting messages from eyewitnesses and the emergency services instead of its own reporters.

The BBC came in for particularly heavy criticism a few days later, as many people accused it of being slow to identify the chief suspects, and disparaged its cautious reporting of the armed manhunt for them. While Twitter was ablaze with gripping eyewitness accounts of the armed siege taking place in Boston, BBC radio and television reports were, once again, one step behind.

“The BBC is in an unusual position in that it has more platforms than any other journalistic organisation I know,” wrote Charlie Beckett, founding director of the POLIS journalism think-tank at the London School of Economics, about its coverage of the Boston bombings manhunt. “It also has a deliberate policy of verification rather than just speculation or narration. So despite an excellent newsroom social media operation, it is always going to feel slightly ‘behind’ on stories like this.”

If the BBC was showing deliberate caution, it wasn’t without good cause. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings, users of sites such as Twitter, Facebook and, in particular, reddit pored over photos and video footage of the scene shortly before the attack in a bid to try and crowdsource the identity of the attackers. New Statesman described the process as a “racist Where’s Wally”, with the sites largely attempting to identify non-white males carrying rucksacks.

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