Don’t blame ‘the Twitter’, blame the tweeps

Friday’s events on twitter, the social networking website, have had an unexpected outcome — they might have convinced me I was wrong about something.

I recently spent a couple of hours trying to explain to my father why I thought TV3 was correct to break silence and report over Christmas that the Irish Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan, had pancreatic cancer.

He said because the report brought viewers, market share and advertising money to TV3, then their motivation in breaking the story was suspect and the family’s feelings should trump the channel’s desire to get the story out.

I gave him the journalist’s stock “public interest” defence. Ireland was in the middle of arguably
the biggest ever economic crisis to hit the country. The man tasked with fixing it may be replaced, may have to undergo treatment that affected his energy levels and judgment, he may even die.

The public deserved to know all that, I said. The station’s information was accurate and they gave the Finance Minister 48 hours to inform his family.

We agreed to disagree.

After the events of Friday afternoon, however, I am not sure I don’t disagree with him.

Twitter graduated to breaking online “the news” of a famous broadcaster’s death.

There had been no official word from his family, police, doctors or employer.

His loved ones were given no time to break the news to far-flung relatives.

But before his body had even grown cold, social networking websites Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with the so-called news. Sure, the terms were couched — “just heard unconfirmed report that…”; “still only a rumour, but…”, lots of “OMGs” and “WTFs” (twitter language for ‘Oh my God’ and what the f***?’) but it spread far and fast.

His entry on Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia that anyone  can edit, was almost immediately amended with the date of his death.

At the same time as these “rumours” were being copied and pasted on to friends, or “re-tweeted”, a twitter argument bloomed between journalists, based mainly in Dublin and Cork, about whether newsrooms should always wait for official confirmation of a death and even if twitter was the correct forum for breaking such news.

Newspapers, of course, make mistakes. Eradicating them is impossible. But you minimise them by ensuring you have the right people (good reporters, editors and subs) in place with the right guidelines and standards. Some twitterers tried to suggest on Friday that modern, real-time social networking sites and instant publishing demand a new set of rules.

Johnny Giles is alive and well. That, tweeps, is why you wait.

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