Journalists tweeting rumors: not OK

Sunday, July 31, 2011

OK, let’s agree that there’s no “right now” add-on to the long-standing journalist’s credo of reporting “who, what when, where, why and how.”

Defending a free press in an era of extraordinary cynicism about the news media is tough enough without some in the trade handing critics the club with which to beat the profession about the head and shoulders.

But now there’s actually a defense being raised that it’s OK — or at least no sin afterwards — to relay unverified or just plain wrong information, instantly and globally, on Twitter because false rumors and reports later get dispelled.

An item on the Poynter Institute’s website explored the recent erroneous tweets that claimed CNN talk-show host Piers Morgan, a former editor for media mogul Rupert Murdoch, had been suspended by CNN in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal in Great Britain. No, Morgan has not been suspended.

Poynter’s Steve Myers writes that although some reporters decried the instant-rumor-mill gaffe, one writer for the Reuters’ news organization, Felix Salmon, said, “Rumors happen there [on Twitter], and then they get shot down — no harm no foul. … In the newsroom, we say things like “did you hear that Piers Morgan just got suspended?” and that’s fine. Is it really that bad to say that kind of thing in the newsroom called Twitter? I don’t think so.”

So, to sum up: Getting it wrong fast is OK?

No, it is not.

Credibility is the major distinction that professional journalism — in print, over the air or via the Web — should lay claim to in an era of “free news” and easy information access in which errors, hoaxes and altered video clips abound.

As for that newsroom analogy: What’s newsworthy about people sitting around wondering whether they’ve collectively heard something? That’s distorted self-importance talking, not First Amendment-worthy journalism.

As news consumers, we really don’t care what you, the journalist, simply have heard. We want to know what you know for certain. For real. So that we can use the information for our own purposes.

For anything less, I’ll turn to “The Onion.”

Here’s a less-than-140-character message for the rumormongers out there:

If it’s not true, don’t tweet it. If you can’t be bothered to find out whether it’s true, don’t tweet it. And don’t tell me it’s OK to be wrong in a tweet today because you may get it right in a tweet tomorrow. Two tweets don’t make a right.

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