Let’s hold off on that Pulitzer for Twitter


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Twitter is many things. It is a neighborhood stoop for people to gossip. It is an outlet for movie studios, TV networks, athletes and actors to promote themselves. It is a platform for journalists, including this one, to get their stories out to the masses.

What Twitter is not, is a news organization. It does not employ reporters. It does not have news bureaus around the world. Maybe one day it will, but for now it is a global bulletin board. That’s why it is so frustrating when people, particularly veteran journalists give Twitter itself credit for breaking big stories.


The latest example of this was the news that the United States had killed Osama bin Laden. On May 1, the Obama White House sent word to networks and newspapers that a major story was breaking and that the president would be addressing the nation soon. News organizations scrambled to figure out what was up and it wasn’t long before Keith Urbahn, a former Defense Department staffer in the Bush administration, tweeted that he was hearing that Bin Laden had been killed. He also acknowledged it was a rumor.

None of this is intended to take issue with Urbahn and his speculative tweet. In a pre-Twitter era, he might have called up a reporter and passed on the information. Twitter cuts out the middle man. There is nothing wrong with that.

Now, if Urbahn had been wrong, the world would have shrugged and moved on. However, if CNN, the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times had tweeted a Bin Laden dead rumor that didn’t pan out, their credibility would have been shattered and they would have been rightly raked over the coals for sloppy journalism.

In another example of overstating Twitter’s role in the Bin Laden coverage, much was made after the news of Bin Laden’s death broke about tweets from Sohaib Athar, a Pakistani resident who kept posting notes about all the helicopter activity near where he lived. What he was hearing, it turns out, was U.S. forces helicoptering in and out of Abbottabad. He had no idea that was what was going on and said as much in interviews after the raid and the discovery of his tweets.

On his Sunday CNN show ‘Reliable Sources’ looking at the media, host Howard Kurtz said of Athar: ‘I love the fact that this guy scoops the entire world.’

He did not scoop the entire world. He heard noise and posted something on Twitter about it. He didn’t know what the noise was so how did he scoop the world? Even he acknowledged as much in an interview with NBC.


If Twitter had been around in November 1963 and a Dallas resident tweeted, ‘just heard gunshots’ would we say that person broke the story of the JFK assassination?

This is not meant to dismiss Twitter. It is a powerful site with tremendous potential. I use it both professionally and personally. It is a great tool for reporters, for promoting work and even for sourcing.

It is the people filing to Twitter -- for free -- who are providing the value for the site. People use Twitter to spread news, Twitter doesn’t break news. On paper it may seem like Twitter makes everyone a reporter, but there has to be a recognition that it is not a level playing field between people who use Twitter and news outlets who have professional reputations at stake every time they tweet.

Perhaps Twitter will soon create its own version of a wire service. For now though, it is a corner bar for the world to tell everyone what happened to them that day. Sometimes the drunk sitting next to you at the bar is right on the money, and other times he doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about.

-- Joe Flint