Reporting live in a world with Twitter

As you are undoubtedly aware, a gunman held eight people hostage at the WCB in downtown Edmonton last week. I happened to be on Breakfast Television that morning, so I was on the Citytv set as news was trickling in. I had the opportunity to tweet about the news live on the air:

Unconfirmed via @CitytvEdmonton: armed man holed up in the WCB building downtown. #yeg

It all happened very quickly and if the news wasn’t so terrible, I’d have said it was exciting. Certainly it was a good illustration of one aspect of the social media tools I was scheduled to talk about that morning.

A couple of hours later, I setup a live page on ShareEdmonton to cover the story (the feature is a work-in-progress, so it should be time-boxed but isn’t currently). That enabled anyone to quickly look at the stream of updates coming from Edmontonians related to the hostage situation. I used it throughout the day, and the feedback I received was mostly positive. I think what was most powerful about it was that you simultaneously got updates from the local media (in particular, @lyndasteele) and regular citizens, some discussing the event, others simply trying to find out what was going on. I’m sure many more people were just monitoring the #yeg hashtag in Twitter Search, TweetDeck, or some other app.

I think most found Twitter to be a useful resource that day, but not everyone was happy. Can you guess who complained about the Twitter coverage? Some members of the local media, of course. I heard from a number of journalists throughout the day that they were concerned about posting news on Twitter. Esther Enkin from CBC even wrote about it:

The task is complicated further by the sheer volume of communication. Facebook and Twitter were working overtime. At one point, there was a rumour that someone holed up in the building was updating the situation on Facebook.

The level of speculation and misinformation on Twitter was an object lesson on the need to verify and sift the facts.

Late in the day, someone from CBC tweeted that some hostages had contacted us. We weren’t reporting the fact that we had become involved for a bunch of reasons.

But here is a really important principle. We should not tweet what we wouldn’t put on the air.

I’m not going to deny that verifying the facts is important, but I will disagree that the level of “speculation and misinformation” on Twitter was higher than normal. I think it was the opposite actually – I think Twitter enabled citizens to get the facts faster. Faster than walking around talking to neighbours or coworkers, which is where speculation truly thrives, and certainly faster than waiting for the six o’clock news.

Esther takes care in her article to deny that they were withholding information for competitive reasons:

One reason we didn’t let on is because we didn’t want every other news organization jumping in. Not for competitive reasons, but because the chaos could be dangerous.

Really? Chaos would ensue from other media organizations knowing that CBC had talked to the hostage taker? I’m not so sure.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the media over the last year it’s that they are incredibly competitive. That was the primary concern when Twitter hit the scene in Edmonton back in Februrary – “we can’t tweet that or our competitors will find out.” Maybe Esther is telling the truth, but I don’t believe it.

Her other reason for withholding the information was based on CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices, last amended in 2004 (before Twitter, you’ll note).

Of course, the primary danger of live reporting and detailed descriptions of what is going on outside in a situation like this is that the hostage taker can be listening, watching and logging on.

That makes sense at first, but think about it a little more. That statement implicitly suggests that reporters can collectively control the information the hostage taker is receiving. Really?

Trying to control the information is impossible. You have to assume the hostage taker is going to be looking for information. These days, that probably means he or she is carrying a device with Internet capabilities. You also have to assume that regular people are going to be posting information, people who never went to journalism school and who don’t work for a media organization. Some of those people are going to be merely observers, looking at the situation from the outside. Others will be part of the event.

All the signs point to more information, from more people, faster than ever before. Most of us walk around with phones or other Internet connected devices, and in a couple years you probably won’t be able to buy a device without Internet connectivity. I think that’s the reality, and that’s the world the media need to visualize themselves in.

Stop complaining about the misinformation on social networks, and start preempting it. Stop trying to control the flow of information, and start figuring out how to effectively contribute the facts.