Watching a breaking news story unfold in Twitter time: An object lesson in why solid journalism practices are more important now than ever

To know me is to know I am never far from a web-enabled device.  Or several.  But yesterday being a Saturday, I wasn’t paying much attention to Twitter, Facebook or email.  My partner and I were motoring around town doing a bunch of errands.  We didn’t even have any music on, since we had things to talk about and the truck doesn’t have Sirius radio anyway.

Somewhere on the way back to Cambridge from Madison, I pulled out my iPhone and looked at Twitter.  (No, I was not driving.)  My list of follows is a mixed bag of about 400 feeds, mostly made up of news sources, pundits, bloggers and fellow mass communication academics.

“Something’s happened,” I mumbled.  That was my first utterance to Tom as he drove and I scrolled through recent tweets.

“Really?  Wow.  Thanks,” was his reply to my empty statement.  “Care to elaborate?”

I felt like an old-time radio news announcer, using rip-and-read wire service copy.  “Someone’s been shot.  Umm, someone important.  Umm, looks like maybe someone elected.  Oh man, a Congressman.  A Congresswoman.  And a federal judge.  And a lot of other people.  Unknown who and how many dead.  Safeway parking lot in Tucson.”  I continued to scroll, picking though the redundant and often conflicting 140-character dispatches.

This was how we came to know that there had been a shooting incident in Tucson and  U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been one of the many victims.  Dead, says NPR.  Wait a minute, says the New York Times.  Conflicting reports on whether Giffords is alive, says MSNBC.  “What the f***,” says me.

With no decent connectivity for Internet access on US 12 in rural Dane County, I opted to move from cutting edge to old media technology.  It was a minute before the hour, and I was able to get CBS Radio News via Chicago’s WBBM tuned in just in time for their top of the hour newscast.  Playing it safe — and smart, I believe — CBS News went with the conflicting reports angle and carefully said what little they knew to be true and cautiously addressed what they did not know.

Within minutes we were home.  I cracked open the laptop, and jumped into the broadband chaos that was swirling around this event.  And there I sat for the next two hours, watching this horrific story come into focus.  Maybe a better description would be watching hundreds of pieces of a mosaic begin to fall into place, leaving hundreds more pieces still missing.

By now, NPR was already back-peddling on the report of Giffords’ death.  While the network did not take down the erroneous tweet that announced the death, they did live-blog the story with continuous updates.  NPR also offered explanations of how erroneous information sometimes gets reported as fact, some delivered via Twitter by their own media reporter.  (As if NPR needed this new scrutiny and criticism right now, given the resignation of their senior news executive over the Juan Williams debacle just days earlier…).

Meanwhile, the Twitterverse moved rapidly forward into what it does perhaps too well, a dubious skill at best:  moving conspiracy theories, blame, and lots of unfounded speculation into the ether.  The Sarah Palin cross-hairs graphic, the alleged scrubbing of all kinds of things on all kinds of blogs and Twitter feeds, the snippets gleaned from MySpace and YouTube accounts.  Pundits, pundits everywhere with links to even more punditry.  Admittedly, I was an active participant to some degree, offering a personal blog post pointing the finger at Palin and right-wing hate-talkers.  (I left the post up as a reminder to myself that some things are better deferred while given time for careful consideration.  Yet I stand by the opinions within the post.)

My own Facebook page became a miniature public square among my friends, several of whom are conservatives who live in Arizona.  We vented frustration and anger.  We exchanged and extended opinions.  We swapped links.  We addressed, mostly in a polite way, my right-wing extremist cousin’s assertions that the Obama administration was secretly behind the shooting.  We agreed mean people suck.  In short, we didn’t accomplish anything more than we might have if we were sitting around a local coffee shop… but the discourse was civil, and in some ways cathartic.  Of course, none it it was in any way, shape or form news.  I dare say, however, we may have treated it as such and ourselves as wannabe pundits.  I’m still not sure if it was helpful, but we all seemed to need an outlet for discourse and Facebook was a readily available forum of (mostly) friendly others.

Perhaps the best thing that came up for me was the Badger hockey game last evening.  When I go to hockey games, I become an all-hockey tweeter for a few hours.  I paid as little attention as possible to all the #Giffords tweets and showed great re-tweeting restraint so as not to bug the perhaps three people who may have been following my tweets describing the game.

That reprieve didn’t last long.  By the time we got to a pizza place I became a lousy dinner companion because I was catching up on what my trusted Tweeps were saying.  I was also jumping back into the minor shit storm that my Facebook threads had become (thanks almost entirely to my aforementioned extremist cousin, who I think is now mad at me but has not defriended me… yet).

I ended up staying on the computer until 2am once we arrived back home last night.  I’m not sure why.  I’d like to attribute it to scholarly research, but it was more like being a gawker at a traffic accident.  Yet through it all, I watched the story unfold completely through digital sources, save that one broadcast from CBS Radio News at the beginning of things.  I wandered the conservative and liberal blogs and news sites, and I read the sidebar stories and wire service copy.  I streamed video.  I did not turn on the television, nor did I look at the old news that was printed in my copy of the Sunday Wisconsin State Journal this morning.

So, how do I rate this digital news consumption experiment, if I can call it that?  An A in holding my attention, which I attribute to my excessive news geekiness, but a C- in accuracy (with selective A’s and F’s for individual achievement or lack thereof.)  I’m happy with the user experience and disappointed with the substance behind it.

All in all, I believe I would have been far better served as a news consumer if I had simply waited for what my local daily paper put together with their significant resources and skilled editors.  But I can’t wait;  I want my news NOW, damn it.  And therein lies a dilemma, of course.  To date, we remain far from having old media accuracy at digital media speed.

Twitter and other Internet news and information platforms are great, and I love using them.  But for anyone who needs a real-time/real-world example of why we need journalism education for would-be reporters and editors now more than ever in our digital 24 hour news world, the story of this tragedy in Arizona is your proof point.  Further, this example also supports why we should find new and better ways to teach people young and old how to be better news consumers.  Today, each of us has to take on a greater role in the editing of our own news intake.  Simply understanding the technology to access news and information is not nearly enough.

I’m confident that journalists, journalism educators, and news consumers will figure out how to best deal with reporting and absorbing news at digital speeds.  I just wish we’d hurry up already.

[Cross-posted at Kerfuffle]