Wednesday, 11 May 2011

How Twitter is changing the way news breaks

''News of Osama bin Laden’s death came to international attention when, around 11:40pm Washington time on May 1, US President Barack Obama announced that American forces had entered bin Laden’s compound and killed him.

But if you’d been following Twitter starting more than two hours earlier – from about 10:30am in Phuket – you would’ve already known the whole story.

CNN had a major defining moment when, 20 years ago, they were the only major news outlet with reporters on the ground inside Iraq when the Allied bombing attack began. Suddenly, CNN transformed from an also-ran news network to the head of the class.

A very similar event just happened to Twitter. Obama verified the news story at 11:35pm, but Keith Urbahn – the chief of staff for Donald Rumsfeld, who was Defense Secretary under Bush – broke the news at 10:25pm. His message: “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.”

While speculation was rife with all of the major news agencies that Obama would announce something much bigger than another shootout in Libya, and rumors were flying among reporters and writers and producers – aided and abetted by leaks from inside the White House itself – nobody in the major networks would get on the air and report a story that was about to unfold with the President at the center.

Instead, the Twitter universe lit up with the story, and had it nailed before the President stepped up to the microphone.

Those who followed the “red shirt” protests in Bangkok learned early on about the advantages of Twitter. Many people have remarked – and I’ll certainly add to the refrain – that international network news coverage of the events during those days was patently absurd: overwrought, inaccurate, sensationalistic, and sadly lacking in facts.

The news broadcasts would’ve had you believe that Bangkok was immolated, riots on every street corner, and the country on the verge of civil war.

But those following the events on Twitter – stories told by people who were there, observing, reporting, posting snapshots on Twitter – had a much different impression.

Granted, the facts being reported didn’t come from professional reporters. They came from people who found themselves caught in the middle of traffic, or witnesses to an explosion, or people attending a rally, or watching a shopping complex burn. There’s no way to verify the accuracy of the reports: someone could have posted a message that little green men had just emerged from UFOs on Sukhumvit Soi 8, and there would be no way to validate the observation. But that’s the nature of the medium. ''

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