There’s a reason the mainstream media have developed an itchy trigger finger: Twitter and Facebook often are the first places real news breaks. The deaths of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston and fast-moving developments in the wake of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s exit are but a few examples of the breathtaking rise of social media as a news source.
Meanwhile, the AP’s decision not to rush to judgment in the Giffords story was not without its downside. Impatient editors and news producers wondered why the news cooperative seemed behind the pack. For decades, the AP has issued private advisories for newsrooms, letting them know what its staff was doing to confirm breaking news. The service now realizes it has to do the same for the entire Internet, especially since so many of its reports go directly to news sites, where they are posted immediately.
“For years, the AP would not publicly knock down what others were reporting when we knew it to be wrong,” says Carroll. “Now, both newsroom editors and general readers want to know a lot more about what we know and why we know it. So we’ve gotten more comfortable telling them, in advisories to newsrooms and tweets to readers. We’re more comfortable saying so when we don’t know if something is true—and when we know for sure that it isn’t.”
Social media’s role in the coverage of news events has been sanctioned by no less an authority than the Pulitzer Prize judges. The Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News won this year’s Pulitzer in the breaking news category in large part because of its extensive use of Twitter to report on a tornado last April that rendered useless local landlines and cellphones.
“They made it clear to all of us who were judges this year for breaking news that we needed to look very hard at real-time reporting,” Seattle Times managing editor and Pulitzer jury member Kathy Best told Jeff Sonderman of the Poynter Institute. “Were the news organizations that entered taking full advantage of all of the tools they had to report breaking news as it was happening? We took that really seriously and eliminated some of the entries because they waited too long to tell readers what was going on.”
Consumers also demand immediacy—and it seems that in their quest to stay informed, they will turn to even the most dubious sources. After Spike Lee tweeted what turned out to be an incorrect home address for George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain in Florida accused of killing teenager Trayvon Martin, the misinformation spread far beyond even the filmmaker’s already considerable audience of 271,000 followers.
Meanwhile, forget the fallacy that kids don’t use Twitter. Former Minneapolis Star Tribune editor Tim McGuire, now a journalism professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, says that while Twitter was no big deal among young people a couple of years ago, it has become their go-to news feed—and regardless of who is doing the tweeting. “They talk to me about how news has become commoditized,” he says. “It does not matter where they go to get news—they believe that totally.”
Well, not totally, he is quick to add—and the singular exception could make all the difference for mainstream media desperate to hold on to the trust of their audiences. “If something big happens—the Gabby Giffords shooting here in Arizona was a good example—they want to go to a brand name,” the professor says. “They want to go to CNN or The New York Times.”
That, of course, has been a central message of traditional media brands since the dawn of the Internet, even as consumers increasingly say they have lost faith in the press. You will trust us because we have built a reputation—over decades, or in some cases centuries—by verifying information, assessing sources and purveying the most reliable news reports.
It is the view of no less than Jim Brady, a digital news pioneer at The Washington Post and the aborted hyperlocal experiment tbd.com, who, as editor in chief of Digital First Media, is now part of the team upending the news operations of Journal Register Co. and Media News Group by turning them into digital-first news providers. “Precisely because there is so much information out there, [consumers] need us more than ever,” Brady says. “A lot of people, obviously, don’t like the press for what we report, but they do trust that the press is reporting with a lot of rigor. So I do remain convinced of the power of brands like The San Jose Mercury News or The Denver Post and all our other, smaller brands.”