Wise Up

A tale of two Twitters

Mike Wise wasn’t.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post sports columnist decided to tweet a fabricated claim that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would be given a five game suspension by the NFL. Wise later said the erroneous tweet was his way of showing that “anybody will print anything.”

Well, he proved that people would pass along information if it comes from a reputable sports reporter, and that said sports writer will face a storm of criticism, admit on the radio that his gambit was a “stupid, irresponsible” idea, and be suspended for one month by his employer. A fantastic experiment, that one.

In the end, all Wise illustrated was that the credibility he has built up was easy to undermine. Here’s part of the apology he issued at the start of his radio program this week:

I didn’t put ‘kidding‘ in that sentence. I didn’t put ‘just joking.’ I could even say I thought I corrected it within five minutes and didn’t realize my Twitter server was busy 30 to 40 minutes later. But the truth is that if I waited one second to make my intentions and sourcing clear, I waited too long.

Wise’s transgression was even more notable because it occurred in the same city and featured the same (supposedly unreliable) platform as another event this week. When combined, they provide a tale of two Twitters and a case study of the disruptive nature of new media platforms. The new openness breeds a certain amount of chaos and unpredictability.

Wise seems to long for the old, closed world of media where the gatekeepers stood watch and the audience stayed silent. But when a gunman took hostages at the headquarters of the Discovery Channel this week, the news broke on Twitter. Along with the live feed of TBD TV, it was one of the best places to follow breaking news about the standoff.

Perhaps it’s fitting that The Washington Post, Wise’s employer, was one of the mainstream media outlets to acknowledge the important role played by Twitter. From its story, “Twitter breaks story on Discovery Channel gunman James Lee”:

The news of a gunman at the Discovery Channel’s headquarters in Silver Spring indeed traveled fast on Wednesday, but none of it came through radio, TV or newspaper Web sites, at least not at first. As it has with other breaking news events — the landing of a jet on the Hudson River in 2009, the 2008 massacre in Mumbai — the story unfolded first in hiccupping fits and starts on Twitter, the much-hyped micro-blogging service that has turned millions of people into worldwide gossips, opinion-mongers and amateur news reporters.

Of course, things aren’t quite that simple. The Post’s story notes that a Twitter user shared an “astonishing” photo “of a man clad in shorts, carrying a rifle and stalking through what looked like an office courtyard.” When it made the rounds on Twitter, many understood this to be the Discovery gunman. That was what the user who first shared it had tweeted. He was wrong.

So, yes, there was misinformation within the #Discovery stream on Twitter, just as rumor and gossip were passed around long before anyone knew what a hashtag was. (Have a look at how MSNBC.com’s Photoblog handled the image.) The Post’s story about Twitter’s effect on the hostage incident offered a look at the role that outlets such as itself can play in the new information ecosystem. It quoted Allan Horlick, president and general manager of WUSA-TV, as saying, “The initial information may have come to us through these tools [like Twitter], but we have to apply the old-media skills of vetting and serving as a filter.”

That’s pretty much the opposite of the role Wise chose for himself.

To recap: you have a columnist at the Post behaving unprofessionally by using Twitter to intentionally circulate false information in order to show how the new world of media and emerging platforms (like Twitter!) are sacrificing accuracy. Then, just a few days later, that same platform distinguishes itself on a breaking news story to the point that the Post dedicates resources to telling that story to readers, while also noting the importance of having professionals provide a layer of verification.

Yeah, that sounds like just the right amount of chaos.

Correction of the Week

Clarification: The main headline for an article in Sunday’s Arts & Entertainment section about an American Repertory Theater production of “Cabaret” did not intend to suggest that the relationship between Amanda Palmer, who stars in the show, and Steven Bogart, her former drama teacher and mentor at Lexington High School, who is directing the production, was anything but professional. As a second headline and the story itself made clear, Palmer sought Bogart to direct the musical because she admired his professional abilities. – Boston Globe

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.