Mea Culpa: No news is news on twitter

I spent a lot of time watching twitter last night. Watching the dynamics of tweets about the riots – the reports, the reaction and the rumours.

I retweeted a few things but tried to avoid directly tweeting. I had an opinion, some tweets I thought deserved a response but others responded in better ways. But then I did tweet:

Reporting that nothing is happening in your area/city? ask yourself is that really news.
Andy Dickinson

I was frustrated by a steady stream of tweets from news orgs and journo’s outside of London (and at that time outside the confirmed trouble spot in Brum) tweeting that nothing was happening in their areas. Since when has journalism been about reporting something that hasn’t happened?

It was a generalised statement (well, rhetorical question) and people happily and appropriately began putting holes in it.

Of course it was worth tweeting. According to Martin Smith that’s how you stop the rumours…

@ no but it may help stem some of the wild rumours on here. #balancingact
Martin Smith

and those rumours where causing mass panic according to Brett Cullen

@ Im not saying that, Im saying reporting that something not happening in your area,at a time when there is mass panic, is news
Brett Cullen

Really? Mass panic all over the country? But we digress…

David Bartlett argued that’s what a journalist should do:

@ don't journalists have a duty to inform? Including to correct misinformation?
david bartlett

as did Neil Macdonald:

@ you're wrong Andy. Lots of tweets saying rumour riots here and there. Up to local paper to set record straight. We tweeted it
Neil Macdonald

Then Louise Bolitin drove the proverbial bus right through my point:

@ actually, yes. I'm talking with other disabled, many are scared if fires start they won't be ab;e to escape
Louise Bolotin

How do I argue with that? Push the point further and I’m in danger of suggesting that it’s fine for disabled people to be worried about burning in a fire!

So, according to twitter, the answer to my original question was a resounding yes. I was wrong and I held my hands-up.

Time and place

I still think that it’s right to question if journalists and media orgs should tweet ‘nothing is happening’.

  • From a journalistic point of view statements without any context are not news.

Despite protestations of its importance ‘no news’ statements like that would never make the front page or head of a bulletin.  As Neil Macdonald pointed out that they where more information than news. Journalism as a source of information – very valid.

A few tweets did quote authoritative voices – police etc. That was better. Some proper information in there. Many did not.

  • Pushing out those statements assumes that tweets are a direct answer to the rumours.

Of course they aren’t – there is no connection to the source. Most didn’t link to the original rumour so how can people know what reports where being talked about? At best you show that nothing is happening at worst you amplify the concern to a new network.

  • It assumes that your tweets go in to the same networks and hold the same weight as those spreading the rumours

That may be true for some networks (see below), but the rumour will always travel further than the rebuttal and that’ll be beyond your network before you have any influence.  This is not like a celebrity apparently dying. It’s not a singular event that picks up momentum in the absence of any other information. This is a dynamic situation that is driving a lot of traffic. Generalised statements will get lost in the noise and new information replaces it. True or not the noise will swamp weak signals.

In this instance I thought that the ‘no news’ tweets simply served to amplify what the network already knew – at best a pointless exercise. Like spitting in the wind. At worse it created the idea of problem that wasn’t there.

I have to say (and did at the time) that Louises example proves the point.

Louise is talking to a specific network, one that she passionately cultivates and serves. Last night she talked specifically to them with information and updates that where directly relevant to them. It wasn’t rumour control, it was useful information. That’s not what a lot of the tweets where. But as she pointed out, the generality of my statement was just as bad:

@ but you just proved to me why I'm happy to see ppl tweeting that their neighbourhoods are quiet. Is reassuring for 99% of us
Louise Bolotin

I found that last statement interesting though “reassuring for 99% of us”. I think that should be 99% of us on twitter. Which is my last point:

  • Panic on Twitter does not equate to real panic

Generalising does not help.

Mea culpa

Which is what I discovered and, of course, exactly what I did with my original tweet. Lack of specifics, a broad statement left me wide open. Lesson learned and, through experience maybe point proved.

I still hold my hands up.

33 Replies to “Mea Culpa: No news is news on twitter”

  1. Thanks for the mention, Andy. I was on Twitter till gone 1am last night. Not just tracking unfolding events in London and “watching” from afar with horror, but also trying to find out what was happening here in Manchester. At one point there were unsubstantiated rumours of trouble in Manchester, plus a couple of tweets about burning cars on Trinity Way in Salford which did appear to be true but an isolated incident. I made several calls to GMP’s press phone line – no answer. That was really poor show on GMP’s part.

    This is where Twitter does get useful. Of course, it’s a medium for spreading untrue rumours but it can also be used to try and ascertain the truth. A number of other Mancunians I know were up late checking in with friends and contacts across the city and reporting back that all was quiet. They were a better source of information than the police, who weren’t answering their press phone.

    Elsewhere, two disabled friends in London were edgy. They weren’t in the affected areas but were understandably worried that if the trouble spread to their area they might be in trouble. So we cooked up the #disabledriothelp hashtag and started spreading it far and wide so we could offer emotional support to any other frightened disabled people living in affected areas. This was especially important as a lot of people were tweeting their night carers had failed to turn up because of the unrest.

    I found the tweets from all over a number of cities immensely reassuring because it meant we could pass such “non-news” on to the worried.

    Also, the 99% is not just Twitter. Of course not everyone is on Twitter, but almost everyone has a phone. And those of us scouring Twitter for useful info can pick up the phone and notify those who are not, to let them know either that they have nothing to worry about trouble on their doorstep or that they should call a neighbour if they need to seriously consider going elsewhere for the night.

    1. Thanks for the comment Louise.

      On reflection I think it was the wrong question, badly worded and I rightly was called to account. Your second point (and the point you raised last night) is a valid one but not really what I meant. But I recognize that my broad statement invited the criticism.

      Your first points do underline the importance of ‘how’ of using twitter in situations like this and, for me, how important context is. That was my ultimate frustration. For every user doing what you explain – actually trying to get information in context – plenty of others did the first bit -share the info – but not the second bit – add the context. That underlined for me how easy it is to use the medium but not use it well. Something I was equally guilty of.

      The point about people on twitter helping those who aren’t is a good one and (again) the way something like twitter can work for all concerned. But the two are not connected in the sense that you can do that without twitter. Twitter isn’t the enabling factor here, you are.

      Again a lot of what happened last night was people tweeting because they could with little thought to the impact. Away from the main point, a lot of people where tweeting about just shooting ŧhe rioters. yeah, very helpful!. A great example of how easy it is to be knee jerk (or just a jerk) when all you need to do is press send.

      I’m not suggesting any of the people I engaged with last night fall in to that camp – thats the problem with a broad statement , everyone “resembles the comment”.

      But I think there was a lot of tweeting without thought and, in a journalistic context, a lack of discipline.

      Lots of broad issues in a ‘knee-jerk’ tweet!

  2. Hi Andy, interesting blog post on a topic I was about to blog about too. As one of those who tweeted ‘no news’ tweets last night in respect of Leeds and Manchester I also questioned my actions. In the end it seemed necessary because there was so much mis-information flying around. Potentially dangerous mis-information too. So ‘no news’ seemed the least anyone could do. I also found I was relying on both mainstream journalists and trusted bloggers from my network but found myself doubting not seen before names appearing with updates. Perhaps that shows the strength of those longer term relationships forged through social media? Thanks again @mylifeinleeds, @johncbaron, @bbcnorth for the Leeds tweets, @davidottewell and @paulcockerton for the Manchester ones.

    1. I think the point about veracity is a good one. Checking whats going on from trusted sources is the right way to go. That’s information. I’m not convinced that all the tweets measured up to that standard.

      I’m not sure about the idea of “Potentially dangerous mis-information”. I think that assumes a level of influence that twitter doesn’t have. Much as the daily mail would love it to be true. But it would be as much for me to prove that.

      I think the whole thing makes me reflect on the way the dynamic nature of the communication on twitter means the relationships swing from personal to broad in short order and how dynamic the response needs to be in terms of how you interact.

      You, louise and newsmary prove there is a way to approach a considered response (driven by audience). My point was that many didn’t practice the same discipline.

      Thats’ what I commented on and what my network rightly picked me up on. It was a statement that needed context.

  3. I was also tweeting “no news” last night – but for very specific reasons. I live in Tooting. A few folks joking on Twitter about how Tooting rhymes with Looting had set off the rumour mill, and I was seeing frantic panicked people asking whether their friends and family in Tooting were OK, alongside people claiming the train station was on fire and the local Primark had been burned to the ground. So I tweeted the lack of news, and went and verified no news was happening, and asked people to correct misinformation, and got in touch with worried people to reassure them. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It still does.

    1. I think the proximity of the rioting to you makes it news. That adds context. My issue (that I accept was not communicated in the tweet) was that many people where tweeting (outside of London and Brum) with no real purpose. An effort to be ‘involved’ in an emotive event? A genuine attempt at public service? I don’t know. But my feeling was that outside of the directly effected areas it was ‘none news’

      The broad nature of the tweet leaves it on me to justify my position against an emotive backdrop. I can’t argue with the importance of knowing that the primark next door is on fire. I’m not trying to. But that’s the penance for a broad statement.

      I’m not saying you shouldn’t have done what you did. I was observing that some people seemed to be doing it with little or no point. There would be many who can’t put up as strong a case for the tweets they made or defend them against a standard of veracity or context.

      1. I think you make a very good point. But then I also have family who were frightened last night – parents on their own in other cities with young children. For them, with the awful pictures coming in on their TVs, there would be literally no information at all about their neighbourhoods if it wasn’t for “no news” tweets. If your search comes up with nothing (or nothing but rumours), you’ve no way of telling whether it’s because there’s nothing happening or because there’s nothing being reported. If your search finds people reassuring each other, saying there’s no news, then you’re likely to go away feeling much more secure. For that reason, I guess I’d say a lot of no news tweets are entirely justifiable – they serve the needs of specific communities, which is enough context for me.

        1. I can’t disagree when you make it personal – that’s not a criticism. I don’t disagree with your view. In raising the issues I’m not trying to undermine the importance of allaying peoples fears or downplay their real concern. I can’t judge that.

          But I think my general point about the quality of the information still stands.

          If the tweets countering the rumours where backed up with good information with authority (ie quotes from reliable sources to add weight) then they do the job but it assumes a lot. It assumes that everyone was being as thorough and careful as you – they weren’t. That was my point badly made 🙂

      2. It was surprising how quickly at one point last night the trouble moved away from London’s 20 or so affected areas to first Birmingham, then Bristol, Liverpool and Nottingham. From 11pm onwards last night, it seemed entirely legitimate to be monitoring Twitter for any hints of possible unrest in other cities. Manchester, for example, has a fair few deprived neighbourhoods that could easily have kicked off, including my own (and I’m thankful I don’t live over a shopping parade).

        But I agree that context is essential and I also agree with Sarah about veracity of sources. I was seeing tweets from unknown people in Manchester that were passing rumours on. But the people I follow on Twitter who were also attempting to verify such rumours are people I trust even though these people were not journalists or bloggers.

        1. I agree. It was pretty quick the way it spread. Monitoring, veracity and sources are all great things to mention here. I commented on a post Adam Westbrook put up that some reflection on how we use twitter (journalistically) at times of high churn and impact like the riots – crisis tweeting if you like

          Monitoring and veracity seem like good watch words in that respect. Monitoring rather than simply pushing stuff out for the network to decide and being a little more selective about what we push out based on the veracity.

          Again I’m not saying people did it wrong.

  4. And just to add, Greater Manchester’s Police’s twitter was silent last night. It put out a tweet at 10.56pm then another after 1am (after I’d gone to bed) to say nothing was happening. But that was all. I made more than half a dozen attempts to ring their out of hours press number between 11pm and 1am but it just rang with no reply. This lack of official information made assessment of the rumours much harder.

    1. I agree. The point that the police seem to be a bit behind the curve when it comes to the social media aspects of this (good and bad) seems to be made universally. Perhaps they’ll prove that they do have the provision by tapping in to the network (tap not hack!) to catch people. A little reactive I know but in events like this can you be anything but.

  5. Lots of good points on Twitter’s evolution for news organisations, but I feel there’s a balance to be had here and saying no news is not a valid reason for Tweeting is not always fair.

    If as an official local news source on Twitter you’re seeing multiple tweets asking/predicting/suggesting there’s rioting or other event not actually taking place, at some point it is our duty to respond (it would be ideal to include all those Tweeters but with 140 chars, that’s not always realistic).

    At the @PeterboroughET we took the policy of limiting our updates and retweeting local police (who were pretty on the ball with their updates) where possible to add weight to our information. Verification has always been key with Twitter, along with sifting and filtering sources and tip-offs, all part of regular news process, they are just magnified on social networks.

    It would have been easy to go around responding to all those concerned locals (plenty of them genuine) and getting directly involved with those seemingly deliberately misinforming regarding potential or imagined riots in our area. It’s all part of the learning curve of Twitter for news orgs, which becomes more difficult as your following audience grows, but the benefits of being able to quickly inform, collaborate and communicate still outweigh its negatives.

    1. Thanks for the comment Richard.

      I wasn’t really saying that no news was not a reason for tweeting. I accept that for those in and around trouble spots, those tweets where useful. In that sense they were news (proximity, relevance etc.etc.). By that measure many were ‘no news’ and by the measures of any newsroom wouldn’t have warranted attention.

      In some ways your comment underlines my point. What you did at the PeterboroughET seemed like a very appropriate and journalistic response. Your tweets contained useful information from appropriate sources. Many of the tweets I saw did not.

      Perhaps news was the wrong term (part of the broad tweet issue). But I picked it specifically as a journalistic term at the time for a reason. By any measure a lot of tweets had no news value and so, in my view, no value to the network. Yours and many others did.

      In terms of duty – the duty to inform and clarify – again, it sounds like your tweets did that. Many others didn’t.

      But that issue of duty is a thorny one. If an org has a duty/responsibility to inform and correct missinformation, if they have a duty to allay the real concerns of those (in this case) on twitter then how do you resource that?

      Surely duty would dictate that you DO have someone on twitter for the duration of any situation like this and that the DO engage with everyone of the people who is concerned or does push out missinformation.

      I think that the reality is that resources won’t allow that unless proximity is a real issue. A newsroom in Manchester or Brum may put people on all night to cover actual events. Would an editor put someone on all night in Anytown, where nothing is happening, simply to control the rumour mill.

      That’s not a criticism. It’s just reality and part of the decision making process of any news machine. Which makes your last point totally right – its part of the learning curve and all useful grist to the mill.

      It’s just a shame that riots are the catalyst!

      1. Indeed, finding a balance in terms of resource is important in the current climate for local newsrooms. Mobile/web apps enable social media monitoring and interaction without being necessarily on duty or in the office, enabling news teams to react more quickly to events.
        Ideally we should be responding to all our followers, that would best be served by a linked rolling story enabling longer coverage, but we took the view initially that publishing anything on our website would be fueling a non-existent fire.
        Twitter enables such publishing abilities, but we continue to make our way round the learning curve.

  6. Andy, good post and well done for holding your hands up and admitting you got it wrong!

    If you want to see an excellent example of a journalist using Twitter to squash rumours and provide an information service for people during these troubled times look to Cardiff and @danfisherjourno.

    Dan has been on the late shift all week and has been driving the streets of Cardiff to see what is going on. People have been tweeting him if they hear something, have questions, and he’s responding – just look at the sheer number of @replies.

    He has been providing live updates from the police, tweeting photos of ‘nothing happening’ and ensuring people don’t get carried away.

    His follower number has increased rapidly, he’s now on around 3,000 (started on around 600 I believe before Sunday) and he’s been writing updates for the yourCardiff community site and WalesOnline on when small disturbances did happen last night. And the thanks he’s had from people who are publicly showing their thanks with RTs and messages stating how pleased they are to have a constant, accurate and considered source of what’s happening in their city, is heart-warming to see.

    It reminds you that as regional and local media we have not just a job to find stories, but also in providing local information and passing on messages from official sources (police, fire, council) to our considerable audiences.

    1. Great example Ed, Dan’s a perfect example of great use of Twitter. Our reporters drove around Peterborough following a swell of rumours and questions on Tuesday/Wednesday nights, and backed by some solid tweeting by our local police we were able to add informed updates from official sources, adding weight to our stream of tweets, and similarly but on a smaller scale we’ve picked up well over 100 followers in the last 48 hours.

      Shows if it’s done professionally and objectively, how everyone benefits even when nothing is actually happening!

    2. I don’t think I was wrong in what I said as much as how I said it. The comments prove that there are lots of people doing it right. I saw lots doing it wrong. Lots of journalists not behaving like journalists.

      But thats kind of a moot point, which I accept and if nothing else, as well as the useful debate, it also highlights examples of great pratice.

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