No, Twitter Hasn't Replaced CNN

Categories: Media, Tech
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It's become perfectly predictable: Every time there's a major news event, people spend several days talking about how Twitter and Facebook are replacing traditional news organizations -- the (sigh) "MSM." Even if the word "replacing" isn't used, that's often the implication

In the present case -- the assassination of Osama bin Laden -- the notion is especially ridiculous.

Don't get me wrong -- Twitter is where I heard the news, and, together with Facebook, it was where I continued to track and discuss the unfolding events. Indeed, I get much of my news from Twitter and Facebook, which are revolutionizing -- almost entirely in good ways -- the way news is delivered. Normally, I'm in the position of defending Twitter against notions that it's filled with nothing but inanities and announcements of what people are eating for lunch.

What it really is -- for me anyway -- is the best real-time headline service yet invented, and a place to come across news I wouldn't otherwise see.

For the most part, Facebook and Twitter aren't organs of journalism, rather simply organs of dissemination (both of journalism and of sentiments like: "hell naw at 2 something n the morning i was tlking to somebody dat called me private lmao i was half sleep.")

Twitter was abuzz with news on Sunday night -- nearly all of it reported by the (sigh) "MSM."

That night, I saw on Twitter that President Obama was planning to address the nation on some "national security" matter. It was late -- about 10 p.m. on the East Coast. That lateness combined with the fact that, unusually, the subject of the address hadn't been leaked, gave me an ominous feeling.

Speculation ensued, on Twitter and on my Facebook page -- speculation I happily contributed to. Did we kill Qaddafi? One Facebook friend suggested -- in the absence of any cities blowing up or Chinese soldiers landing on the West Coast -- that perhaps a meteor was headed toward Earth. Finally, facts (or facsimiles of facts) started appearing on Twitter: bin Laden was dead; bin Laden was killed by an American air strike; No it was Special Forces; bin Laden was killed in Afghanistan; No, it was Pakistan.

In every single case, whether the fact was erroneous or accurate, it was linked, or at least attributed, to a journalist or a news organization. It was easy to tell what was being reported by journalists (even if erroneously so) and what was being guessed by tweeters.

Nonetheless, in the wake of the assassination, new-media pundits are hailing the event as another victory for social media over traditional media.

Steve Myers of The Poynter Institute declares that Sohaib Athar, a guy who lives near bin Laden's compound, is a "citizen journalist." Athar, an IT consultant, wondered what the hell was going on when the helicopters arrived in Abbottabad. Because he wondered on Twitter, in real time, now he's a "citizen journalist."

Even Athar, who had 750 followers as of Sunday night and now has tens of thousands, knows this is ridiculous. Nonetheless, Myers attempts to explain how Athar became "so influential so quickly," while offering no examples of Athar being influential.

"In 24 hours," Myers writes, "Athar went from someone who jokes with friends on Twitter and invites people to his coffee shop, to someone who broadcasts his thoughts to more than 86,000 followers."

Good for him. But does having 86,000 followers make him a journalist? For that matter, did his real-time tweets of the events make him one? Maybe in a small way, and very briefly, but he didn't know what was going on any more than anyone else did until he heard about it from news sources (via Twitter). Moreover, he was really only tweeting to his friends. His feed wasn't widely known until after the fact. Now he's posting pictures and videos of the compound. That is cool, but now the place is swarming with reporters with much better equipment and access to better information.

Wondering on Twitter why there are helicopters flying around your neighborhood isn't journalism. The world learned that bin Laden had been assassinated after the U.S. government told several big news organizations that that would be the subject of Obama's forthcoming announcement. Nonetheless, Myers says "traditional media was at the end of the chain."

Yes, the end of the chain of learning that a guy in Pakistan had tweeted there were helicopters buzzing around. Big deal.

In a particularly ludicrous account, Matt Rosoff of Business Insider hewed to that site's typical breathlessness and insensibility by declaring that the assassination represents Twitter's "CNN Moment" (a reference to the notion that CNN came into its own with its live coverage of the first Gulf War.)

Twitter, Rosof declared in the middle of the night, just hours after the announcement, "was the first place to report that President Obama would address the nation on a national security issue." Actually, the White House issued that announcement to the news media. Then a lot of people tweeted it. Twitter didn't "report" anything -- at least not any more than space satellites and television sets "reported" that bombs were dropping on Baghdad on February 13, 1991.

Rosof, like many others, makes much of a tweet by Keith Urbahn, Donald Rumsfeld's former chief of staff and a guy few people knew existed, minutes before any news outlet reported it, declaring that bin Laden had been killed. But he was just a guy tweeting something -- just like when my friend posted that the big announcement would be that a meteor was coming.

I was following Twitter very closely, and never saw Urbahn's tweet or any reference to it that night. The first mention I saw that bin Laden had been killed came from Jill Jackson, a Washington-based producer for CBS News. Her tweet was mentioned and retweeted many times over the next half-hour. I never knew about Urbahn's tweet until the next day -- in articles pronouncing Twitter as the new CNN.

Urbahn's tweet was found under one of the many rocks turned over by new-media pundits looking for clues to the demise of traditional news media. Many of those pundits are not unlike the most wild-eyed political ideologues: Turning over rocks to find evidence confirming a preconceived worldview is what wild-eyed ideologues do.

Dan Mitchell has done work for nearly every media organization in the world. That's an exaggeration, but he has written for Fortune, The New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, The Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly.

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34 comments
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#bcpoli
#bcpoli

Twitter is granting access in all kinds of ways. These new ways will vegin to replace the traditional sources. Nothing is faster then twitter. It could be a little easier to search.https://twitter.com/bcpoli

Jon_Naso
Jon_Naso

It's interesting he sees a helicopter and he tweets. Nine years he's living next to Bin Laden and doesn't see a thing.

Davon Smith
Davon Smith

I don't know actually how it works to you but one thing i can tell you, I got the very first glance of Laden issue and it was nothing but my Facebook and twitter updates. But the replacement word is not appropriate to describe it as. It is people who keep these social networking sites updated and most of them do it through the mainstream news agencies like CNN. So they can't be replaced i believe.

Fartacus
Fartacus

The best way for the media to stay relevant is for guys like this to remain dicks. Good job, just because your name has been in the New York Times doesn't make you the arbiter of journalism.

Poynter
Poynter

Dan,I'm glad you wrote this, because it gave me an opportunity to explain exactly why I called Sohaib Athar a citizen journalist. It's not that he merely tweeted about a helicopter overhead, it's that he acted like a journalist when presented with an unusual event. http://ow.ly/4NFOMSteve MyersPoynter.org@myersnews

Greg
Greg

No one I know has the ever discussed if Twitter or Facebook are doing away with traditional journalism or even replacing it. The idea is delusional, of course they're not. Yet it is undeniable that they are additions to it. I feel that you are projecting your false beliefs that journalism is being marginalized by these avenues of communication.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

Quite explicitly the opposite. And I quite explicitly pointed to examples, with links, of what I'm talking about.

SILENTwordsSPOKE
SILENTwordsSPOKE

Making the comment that Twitter is replacing CNN is akin to saying that text messages are replacing emails. Sure, you can get a little bit of information from texts, but if you want the whole story, you have to go to the real thing.

Hooloovoo
Hooloovoo

It's more than that. Saying Twitter is replacing CNN is like saying text messages are replacing the friends sending the texts. Twitter disseminates. It doesn't create. Average Joes and journalists can both send information over Twitter with speed, but just because Average Joe can now broadcast his thoughts to the world doesn’t make him a journalist. If I’m standing in a crowded theater that has caught fire and am the first to shout “Fire!” that doesn’t mean I’m a journalist. I’m just a person who saw a fire and got heard by a bunch of people.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

To help clarify what I'm saying here, let me be the one to link to this story about how so many professional journalists got so many things wrong in the time leading up to Obama's address. This is something I highlighted in this piece, but it deserves to be reiterated: That something is journalism doesn't make it *quality* journalism:

http://www.propublica.org/blog...

Hans K. Meyer
Hans K. Meyer

Great arguments Dan! I also find myself trying to explain that Twitter is more than just breakfast menus, but I won't go as far as saying it's replacing MSM. One thing I don't think has been discussed here is how the MSM give credence to the Twitter reports. In other words, it takes a trained journalist to ferret out the facts and the important information from the Twitter stream.

Babba
Babba

The thing that really gets me here is that it's someone from the Poynter Institute trying to say this guy is a citizen journalist. That's more alarming to me.

DawnYawn
DawnYawn

Babba, you're alarmed because regular citizens are begining to take a role in journalism? You say tomato, I say tomato. It's about how a person defines journalism.

Fray Close
Fray Close

No, it wasn't journalism, but it was interesting. Plus twitter users have now 'met' him and yhe seems like someone I would follow (not that I did follow him). He is funny, well spoken and when I watched him on The Stream on Al Jazeera the other day, he had me glued to the tv. There is an endearing quality about him that makes you listen. I would rather we stop by and say hello or follow a nice guy who heard a helicopter than watch the Charlie Sheen gong show any day!

Readers' Editor
Readers' Editor

Thank you for making such a strong argument. And well said, njudah. I agree.

Newsman13
Newsman13

No, twitter is not journalism, but many people have access to spread the word more quickly than journalists do. And, in many cases now, we tend to believe the common person than a journalist. Think Yelp as opposed to a columnist's critique of a restaurant. Even the OBL scooper said on his blog that the information being reported by the media was a bit inaccurate. Nothing beats a real witness at the scene of the crime.

Artwickc
Artwickc

People who follow @whitehouse got tweets directly from the government.

Jayelle
Jayelle

One other thing--I learned that the President was making an announcement on Twitter, learned what the announcement was about on Twitter, and have tweeted various journalists. However, I turned on the TV so I could hear from the President himself.

Marjorie Sturgeon
Marjorie Sturgeon

Doesn't journalism start with someone asking a question? "Why is there a helicopter flying above my neighborhood?" seems like a reasonable place to start to me. I don't know how many times a veiwer called my newsroom asking about some smoke in the distance or what was backing up traffic and we ended up reporting on it... just a thought to add to the dialogue.

Babba
Babba

But because someone asks a question, does that make them a journalist? People call the newsroom with questions and then journalists go get the answers. This guy asked a question. Soon, the Pres. gave the answers. Real journalists started hitting up sources for what the Pres was going to say. I learned the Pres was going to address the nation via Twitter and then started watching news channels for real work.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

Sure. But, at least in this case, that question didn't lead to any journalism. He wondered why the copters were there, then he found out, via Twitter, from giant news organizations that reported it.

kakamakesmyday
kakamakesmyday

On twitter you get the news from people on the ground (most of the time) and so what if twitter replaces mainstream media at least it doesn't care about ratings. Its like being upset that that email has replaced the fax machine

Jayelle
Jayelle

News is broken on Twiter. I learned that Osama Bin Laden was dead from it. But I think of Twitter accounts more as a modern version of, say, Anne Frank's diary than a replacement for journalism. I've learned about how life is working in Egypt, Libya, and Japan from Twitter users based in those locations. I cried for a woman in Bahrain who went on a hunger strike to protest the arrest of the men in her life. Those things have an important place, and I'm glad the Library of Congress will archive them right along with the "Im so drunk!!!" tweets. It's just another medium, like the internet and television, with its own strengths and limitations.

Andy Bechtel
Andy Bechtel

It's a form of raw, observational journalism.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

It can be, but it really wasn't in this case, and it usually isn't with big stories like this.

Dldarcy
Dldarcy

Say what you will but the fact is, I found out first on Twitter.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

But, can you at least try to address my point? I found out on Twitter, too. But the sources of the news were media organizations.

Sarah
Sarah

Keith Urbahn, Rumsfeld's chief of staff, and Jill Jackson, CBS news producer, both tweeted the info before the first MSM outlet (Fox News) broke the news on air at 10:40 p.m.

http://www.theatlantic.com/tec...

Despite what the Atlantic says here, note that Geraldo Rivera broke the story on Fox News at 10:40 p.m., two-three minutes before CNN: http://www.mediabistro.com/tvn...

MrEricSir
MrEricSir

Twitter may not be replacing "mainstream media," but I found out about Bin Laden's assassination on Twitter long before any newspapers or TV news channels reported it.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

But, can you at least try to address my point? I found out on Twitter, too. But the sources of the news were media organizations.

MrEricSir
MrEricSir

Nope, the sources were entirely hearsay. There was a good 30 minutes before the press got the story.

Sean
Sean

Wooo! Hearsay! USA! USA!

njudah
njudah

CNN sucks, for sure, but Twitter isn't a replacement. It's a tool that can be used to capture as-it-happens events by people (and journalists) on the ground. For that, it's great. But it's not building a coherent story that you can read at get the point. It's so fast, and the posts so microscopic, it's really best to be used in addition to regular newsgathering.

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