When the news of Whitney Huston's death emerged, a huge fuss was made about how much faster Twitter was in breaking it ahead of more traditional media outlets. Yet while we're all aware of how fast Twitter works as a media outlet (and admittedly it does make for an eye catching headline), some points that have been glossed over as a result are worth considering.
Firstly, what people define as 'breaking' a news story may differ from person to person, but usually it involves confirmation from at least one reliable source. It's why we trust reputable media outlets as we know they will make sure that the information is correct first before they publish anything. When you look for news outside of these sources, you need to be a little more cautious with the information you find.
In the case of this particular story, the person credited for 'breaking' the news was a Twitter user called @BarBeeBritt, who posted: "Is Whitney Houston really dead?" She may have been the first to mention the topic, but asking the question isn't what you define as breaking news. After that, some other Twitter users (the most notable ones being @AjaDiorNavy and @chilemasgrande) began circulating the news, but it wasn't until Associated Press (AP) confirmed the story that the topic exploded. This graph from Twitter shows the effect AP had on the story.
First Vs Best
Now people wonder why the various news outlets were so slow to report the news if it was already out there. Well there are two reasons: The first and most important one is fact-checking, the bread and butter of all reporting. As mentioned earlier, you need reliable sources first before you can even begin to write about something, or at least that should be the principal behind any news story.
While the web has changed the playing field for a lot of news outlets, blindly writing up a piece without any reliable confirmation can be potentially damaging for an outlet, especially if it turns out that the information received in the first place was wrong. There is a rush to be the first person or outlet to report a story and gain all the credit, but being first doesn't mean that your story is the best. There's a process that must be adhered to and not doing so can ultimately strain your relationship with your audience.
Credibility of Sources
The second reason - although it's no fault of the Twitter users mentioned earlier - is credibility. Rumours circulate the web every day and alleged celebrity deaths seem to be the most frequent of these, especially on Twitter. You only need to look as far back as yesterday to see that 'RIP Chris Brown' was trending worldwide. Anything that is published on a social media site should be taken with a pinch of salt and in this case, it turned out that it wasn't an actual death as many people believed, but referring to his career after an outburst on Twitter.
It's fair to say that in the greater scheme of things, the three users mentioned earlier wouldn't register with anyone outside their respective follower circles, and to be honest, why would they? There's at least 200 million Twitter users online so while we can say that someone was the first to reveal the news, we can only do so in hindsight as picking these people out is very difficult. Also, unless you knew the person telling the story in the first place, then you would be very reluctant to believe what they're saying. Inversely, this is how rumours start to circulate, which always seem to travel a lot faster than real stories due to their usual inclusion of celebrities.
There's also the nature of Twitter to take into account. If you're unknown, it's very difficult to break a story in 140 characters and expect people to take it seriously. Usually it would require you to flesh out the details across multiple tweets to communicate a story. Too often, such 'stories' are broken with the one tweet without any explanation and unless there are others tweeting the same thing, it can mean your tweet will be swept to the side.
That said, Twitter can be a very powerful tool in spreading news and information (which makes the measures taken by Sky News and the BBC news rooms recently as draconian and backwards) yet it's important to treat any unconfirmed story with a hint of skepticism. Just because it sounds believable doesn't mean it's true.