Does Twitter have different standards than TV news?

By Cory Bergman 

This is a story that will make just about anyone in TV news shudder. Last Thursday, news organizations across the world announced that 20 to 30 bodies — some of them children — had been discovered at a property outside Houston. A couple hours later, it turned out the story was flat wrong, sparked by a psychic calling the police. So how did all this happen?

After a little investigation, NPR’s On the Media said a tweet from KPRC in Houston “seems to be the first journalistic salvo” that set off a Reuters alert and an ensuing media storm. To be fair, KPRC says it was contacted by the Liberty County Sheriff’s Department tipping them to the story, and the public information officer never said the tip originated from a psychic. To make matters worse, the PIO didn’t even admit calling KPRC, and he threw social media under the bus for the whole affair. But what ensued in the NPR report is a good learning experience. My transcript:

NPR’s Bob Garfield: “News director Deborah Collura, in a speakerphone interview along with her general manager Jerry Martin, was adamant in pointing out the newsroom does observe standards of sourcing, which is why she insisted that she didn’t let the mass grave story go in her 4 p.m. broadcast absent official confirmation.”


KPRC’s Deborah Collura: “I’m never going to go on the air unless my reporters are on the scene telling me they’re are 25 to 30 children’s bodies, you know, being dug up in a grave. We never said anything on the air.”

Garfield: “But why do you keep making this distinction between on the air, on the web and on Twitter? I mean, this is 2011. They’re all the same, aren’t they? Aren’t the rules the same covering each of those channels of news distribution?”

KPRC’s Jerry Martin: “You’ve got a whole newsroom with access to tweeting, someone who isn’t going to be on air, like an anchor or reporter…

Collura: “Obviously got overly aggressive with the story and tweeted something that did not go through the checks and balance system.”

Martin: “And we can’t find the source at the moment.”

Garfield: “Yes, the TV news is delivered by your Channel 2 news team, the website is controlled by the Click2Houston web team, but anyone of 30 KPRC employees can tweet about anything under KRPC’s handle but management can’t identify who tweeted what when.”

A natural reaction to hearing a story like this is to enforce tight editorial controls, but locking down a Twitter account to a manager’s office or requiring editorial approval for each tweet would be a big step backwards. Instead, it sounds like there’s a communication gap: make sure that everyone — including management — understands that there’s no difference between breaking news on TV and Twitter, and news judgment decisions apply to all coverage channels in unison.

(Full disclosure: Like many other news organizations, @breakingnews and — where I work — tweeted the story, crediting KPRC. We quickly corrected after we learned it was a false report.)