Twittle-tattle will only be ‘first’ in hindsight

For once, this blog isn’t about TV. Well, perhaps a tad. You’ll hardly notice.  It’s about Twitter and (before you stifle that yawn, or perhaps tweet it) the furore around the superinjunctions.

A lot is being made of how individuals on Twitter – we must remember it is not Twitter itself, just a handful of its users – and elsewhere online can ignore mainstream media constraints and reveal/speculate on the identities of those alleged naughty bed-hoppers and adulterers behind the superinjunctions.

We have ended up in an odd twilight zone where professional journalists, whatever the medium, who know the names of those involved are only able to report on the fact that there is online speculation/revelation. Anyone can search online and discover who the alleged sinners are but the mainstream media are gagged from telling us what those searches will uncover.

I won’t spend time debating the morality of the superinjunctions or whether they are in the public interest or not. There is unlimited space devoted to that elsewhere. What I’d like to dwell on for a moment is what this says about Twitter’s relationship with mainstream media and what it says about who we trust.

It strikes me that until Twitter speculation is rubber-stamped by trusted reports in legitimate media, it is just a whiff of a story coming from the kitchen; it isn’t the meal itself. It needs ratifying to be satisfying.

Individuals via Twitter, or other online outlets, may of course sometimes be first with some actual hard news, but that news still requires endorsing before anyone takes it really seriously. Take something like Bin Laden’s death: the guy who first broke the story on Twitter from a leak from a CNN contact says himself that he wasn’t sure that it was true and had to turn on CNN to make sure.  Twitter may have been first, but he, and we, only knew that retrospectively.  It serves as a prod that sends us off to check out the proper story from some more reliable and trusted media source, online or offline.

Of course, for every real bit of news on Twitter there are many more spurious and mischievous pieces. A good example of this was when Johnny Depp  was pronounced dead on Twitter when he was alive and well, though probably still wearing a dodgy hat. Rumours fly round cyberspace, as they do round pubs and offices, until they are stopped in their tracks either by the denial of the person involved or until debunked – or verified – by mainstream journalism.

I know as well as anyone that the established press gets it horrifically wrong sometimes, but I believe they try hard not to.  They have a powerful interest in getting it right, whether to avoid regulatory opprobrium or to maintain their brand’s reputation and hold onto readers/listeners/viewers.  The bond of trust rightly remains and I can’t see it being broken or replaced.

At root, we prefer having our media edited and properly researched just as we prefer restaurants with menus and trained chefs.

In countries where freedom of speech is restricted and professional journalism is no longer doing its job, the likes of Twitter come into their own as a source of news and information about what is (or might be) happening. Where professional media has become just a mouthpiece for corrupt governments, peer to peer reporting can shame them and hold them to account.  But this is still unsatisfying and, as far as anyone can tell, unrepresentative and clearly also open to manipulation by unsavoury forces. It’s just not the same as John Irvine, Lindsey Hilsum and John Simpson in there and on the ground.

So, in a way, internet users’ power to sometimes go where ‘proper’ journalism can’t underlines the importance and power of properly funded and researched journalism.  It’s ironic that the people trumpeting most loudly the challenge peer to peer reporting poses to professional journalists are themselves journalists.  Ultimately the two work rather well together. As with so much else in life, it’s not either/or. 

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