Twitter posted rumor, observations, did not break the Osama story.
I’ve been hearing a lot that Sunday’s killing of Osama Bin Laden was twitter’s CNN moment – the moment when it became a legitimate news organization. Like CNN’s live Baghdad coverage of the Persian Gulf War, Twitter-ites proclaim the 140-character news channel “broke” the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. (Actually CNN’s moment was its live coverage of the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas.)
It’s true that Keith Urbhan, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s chief of staff, tweeted that a reputable person told him Osama was killed, but that does not qualify as “breaking” the story. Mr. Urbhan seems like a good source – no doubt well connected with current and former Pentagon officials. But he’s just one source. It’s very likely many broadcast, cable and newspaper reporters heard the same rumor but were working to confirm it with multiple sources before reporting it. Reporting someone is dead who’s not is probably the worst mistake a journalist can make. We take extra care to make sure we get it right.
There was also the computer guy in Pakistan who heard helicopters over his house and tweeted it. While an important part of the story, it did not break the news. He himself did not know what it all meant until old media journalists and President Obama explained it for him.
If you want to call Sunday night Twitter’s “CNN moment” then you have to point out the many times twitter had incorrectly reported Osama Bin Laden’s death over the past few years. According to Twitter reports OSU football coach Jim Tressel was fired in December. And again in March. He’s still very much on the job.
The point here is not to bash Twitter but to make the distinction between professional reporting and tweeting. Tweets from non-journalists are like transmissions on a police scanner or chit-chat at the little league game. They are first reports, tips, rumors. Sometimes they turn out to be true, many times not. Twitter is very much a part of the news gathering and reporting world, but just that – a part. Tweets seldom tell the whole story.