News agencies don't race Twitter on bin Laden

Twitter was where news of Osama bin Laden's death supposedly appeared, but the service was also filled with false reports. CNN exec says beating Twitter is far less important than filing accurate stories.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
5 min read
Screen shot from CNN.com. Journalism experts say that Twitter can be a valuable at distributing information but can't replace solid news gathering from trusted sources. Screen shot by Greg Sandoval/CNET

Wolf Blitzer and other CNN reporters were digging into whether Osama bin Laden was dead at least an hour before the news appeared on Twitter, an executive from the cable news network told CNET today.

Why should you care? If you value getting the facts straight, you should. Twitter is once again being credited for outracing traditional news sources on a major story. The first published report that bin Laden was dead reportedly came in the form of a Twitter post from Keith Urbahn, a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. defense secretary. A congressman from Florida now appears to have beaten Urbahn with the news.

As with other stories where Twitter appeared to get the scoop on a big story, pundits are once again questioning whether Twitter is a legitimate news source or a threat to traditional news agencies. Does it pressure journalists to speed up the reporting process, which could lead to more errors in stories?

The truth is somewhere in the middle. Twitter users and professional news gatherers seem to have formed a mutually beneficial relationship in disseminating news. Twitter enables eyewitnesses or participants of important events to alert the public as well as reporters. We saw that when Chesley "Sully" Sullengberger ditched his commercial aircraft in New York's Hudson River in 2009. The first photos and reports came from Twitter users. Later on, news agencies helped provide important details and fill in the blanks.

But participants in news stories who turn themselves into citizen journalists don't occur on most stories. It's unlikely that any of the participants in the early morning attack on the compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was hiding posted to Twitter. One witness who was staying in the area near the attack heard explosions from the raid and helicopters flying over, but his posts only made sense after professional news organizations provided the meat of the story.

Even with the obvious value of Twitter, Americans still turn to the media sources that over time have earned their trust. CNN reported that between Sunday evening when news broke about bin Laden's death through 1 p.m. ET today, CNN.com generated 88 million global page views, a 217 percent increase over the four-week average for the same time period.

An informal and highly unscientific poll by CNET showed that out of more than 4,700 people who responded (as of this afternoon), 30 percent learned of the attack on bin Laden from television. The next largest group heard about it through word of mouth and that was followed by Web news sites. Facebook and Twitter each informed 14 percent of respondents.

Old media's influence is perhaps best illustrated by Urbahn. He acknowledged today that he obtained the information he posted to Twitter not from any of his White House contacts but from an unidentified news agency employee.

Of course, it's not clear why a news outlet give up information to someone else and allow that person to scoop them on Twitter. We don't know for sure, but it's easy to see a situation where a reporter may have passed along the information to Urbahn without considering that he would distribute it to potentially millions on Twitter. What we do know is that reporting news stories first is becoming less of a concern in the age of rapid-fire and often erroneous news stories, said Kelly McBride, a news-gathering expert for the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.

"Who gets it first is becoming less important," McBride said, "because for the most part who is first isn't as important anymore as who is answering their audience's most important questions."

Related links
Bin Laden, Twitter, and the frenzy of noise
Bin Laden's death and the Web response (roundup)
Twitter delivers news of bin Laden's death first

To be sure, Twitter can boast that it was home to the first report of bin Laden's death, but it was also used to circulate scores of false reports. Some Twitter followers reported that they were led to believe bin Laden was killed a week ago or that it was Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who had been killed.

If Twitter is quicker at delivering news, traditional news outlets want to provide higher quality information and more context than can be delivered in 140 characters, said Sam Feist, CNN's political director, who was running the news operations there last night. "Our mantra," he said, "is that it's better to be right than first."

That said, CNN strives to gather facts and deliver them to viewers as rapidly as possible. Feist began scrambling reporters after the news agency received a tip at 9:40 p.m. ET that the president would address the nation. Feist said two top correspondents were at a Washington Capitals hockey game when he called and asked them to start working their sources.

It wasn't long before CNN knew that bin Laden was the focus of the president's speech and reporter received little help from Twitter. "We saw Twitter feeds that went off in all kinds of directions," Feist said. He only made the decision to go with the story that bin Laden was dead after reporters, including John King, chief national correspondent, had confirmed the story from numerous high-level sources.

"We knew this broadcast would be seen around the world by friends and enemies of the United States," Feist said. "We knew that potentially millions of people would be watching the program last night. Where you have to be positively correct, we check and double check our information. This was a very important story, and we needed to be absolutely sure."

McBride said many editors are learning that in a world where news can be posted to Twitter in seconds, it's not realistic to expect reporters to win the race for scoops every time.

When they've tried in the past to do that big reporting mistakes are made, she said.

"After these errors, everybody renews their commitment to veracity," McBride said. "This does help news agencies create a threshold for when it's good to publish and when it is not."