Everyone is getting excited, because Twitter reported the death of Whitney Houston 45 minutes before traditional news sources. Actually it didn’t, some guys named Big Chorizo and Aja Dior M. did. Social Media sites don’t break news, they allow others to break news through them.
The graphic below is from mashable.com.
An unscientific survey of friends shows most found out about Whitney’s death through social media (Facebook, twitter), though most can’t cite the source behind the information. Surely, Twitter doesn’t want to claim credit for Big Chorizo’s breaking news, or it opens the social media site up to massive legal issues. But, that doesn’t diminish the power of twitter.
Mashable notes that over 2.5 million tweets were sent within the first hour after Houston’s death.
To me, this is the shifting news paradigm; People are learning about and talking about breaking news stories in break-neck speed.
For years, news organizations have spent millions building news brands (first, fast & accurate — eyewitness news — on your side, etc), yet in today’s world we consume the information so quickly we don’t stop to see where it came from – and in most cases we don’t care. In fact, an initial prank report that Whitney Houston had died from a bee attack was believed by several dozen twitter users before it was debunked. And keeping up with the speed of news is a dangerous game as CBS Sports discovered by prematurely reporting the death of Joe Paterno.
A friend of mine was espousing how TMZ was ‘the source’ for the Whitney Houston story and how amazing it is TMZ has established their brand with celebrity news in six years or so. However, just because TMZ reports something is it automatically worth repeating? My observation is that TMZ is willing to report on stories and facts with limited confirmation, paid information, or single source. Which is why everyone else gives TMZ credit for developing celebrity news and facts in situations like the deaths of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. If TMZ gets it wrong, the brand isn’t tarnished. If CBS gets it wrong, the world sits up and takes notice.
UPDATE: Here is a real example of how TMZ puts credible sources in jeopardy.
Whitney’s funeral is in Jersey and there is still debate over where she’ll be laid to rest – Newark NJ or Atlanta GA – even according to TMZ. Makes me wonder if the “debate” is real or a way for TMZ to save face. Sure, it is a minor detail, but it is a microcosm of a larger issue; followers think they are getting information from a trusted source “WSB” and may not remember pr notice that WSB was sourcing TMZ. So, if Whitney is ultimately laid to rest in Newark some WSB followers will think WSB got it wrong.
So, what is a credible news team supposed to do in this out-of-control, I-want-it-first-I want-it-now society?
At the radio station I program, we removed most of the TV monitors from the news room and replaced them with tweetdecks about a year ago. We use them to see what’s trending, mine and develop unique stories and keep us on the front edge of the artificial news cycle, instead of chasing news papers and TV stations.
News teams (and talk hosts) should strive to tell an interesting story or share a unique detail instead of breaking the news. As we are learning, when the news breaks, most don’t recall where they learned it. It’s what you do with the story after it circles the globe in 23 seconds that will define your brand.
UPDATE 2/15/2012: Two concepts: “Verification” and “Curation”, are key to the future of news. More on Twitter as a breaking news source from CNN
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