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Balancing immediacy and accuracy

Friday, November 20, 2009 | 4:11 p.m. CST; updated 7:03 p.m. CST, Friday, November 20, 2009

Twitter is a lot like fire — a very useful tool, but if you’re not careful, it will burn you.

Twitter has been a great resource for breaking news. Within minutes of hearing about a water main break at the intersection of Hitt and University streets on Friday, Missourian Design Editor Joy Mayer came across a short video of the water flowing up from the ground and down the street.

The video, taken by MU student Justin Scott and uploaded to Twitter, is a good example of immediacy in journalism. The video is nothing flashy — just 1:37 of Scott walking up the street as water runs down the sidewalk. No titles, no narration, no editing. But it does give the reader an accurate idea of how much water ran down the sidewalk before repairs could begin.

On the other hand, you can’t always believe everything you see on Twitter.

If you were following local Twitter chatter last week, you learned that there was a hostage situation with shots fired at a government office building in Jefferson City.

Except there was no hostage, there were no shots fired and it’s a privately owned office building that does house some state operations (the Public Service Commission is a tenant, for example).

When the news broke, Missourian journalists worked to verify whether the information making the rounds via Twitter and later picked up by other media was legitimate.

In the meantime, Elliot Njus, an assistant city editor at the Missourian, used an online service called Cover It Live to pull together various tweets into one unique stream of information, which we then embedded on the front page of ColumbiaMissourian.com. That stream included tweets from Missourian reporters on the scene, other Columbia news outlets and everyday folks who were part of the conversation.

That last decision didn’t sit well with everyone. While some readers appreciated the immediacy that Njus’ unique mash-up of content provided, it included information that was grossly incorrect. While no Missourian staffers tweeted anything about shots being fired, that information was part of the stream. For some readers and staff members, that was not OK. Their position is that a newspaper should vet all information before it publishes, be it online or in print.

Yet, many news organizations do not vet everything before it publishes. Take comments, for instance. If you leave a comment at ColumbiaMissourian.com, it publishes right away (with the user’s name attached). If that comment is a personal attack, contains profanity or is otherwise deemed to violate the comment policy, it’s taken down.

Of all the lessons to be learned from coverage of the hostage situation that wasn’t, the most important is that news organizations have to find a good balance between immediacy and accuracy. That’s hardly a groundbreaking thought, but it’s something the news industry has struggled with for a long time — especially TV news folks, who have had the ability to go live for a long time.

While Njus’ Twitter feed was good, unique content, we should have gone further to moderate what was going into that feed. We should have debunked what hadn’t been verified and reaffirmed what had been. And we should have done it continuously, to make sure readers just joining the conversation would know what was real and what was unverified.

Sometimes, the best thing a journalist can do is simply say “that’s not been verified.” If it’s done fast enough, it’s both accurate and immediate.

Jake Sherlock is the Missourian's opinion section editor. He loves to talk to readers and invites you to e-mail him at SherlockJ@missouri.edu.


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