i Assistant Editor's Letter: Social media and citizen journalism


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The Independent Online


Social media are playing an increasingly large role in news gathering – none more so than this week in the aftermath of the attempted beheading of the off-duty soldier outside Woolwich barracks and the incident involving a BA flight from Heathrow yesterday morning.

“Citizen journalism” took over our screens on Wednesday, with footage of the two suspects in the aftermath of the murder being broadcast around the country and live tweets from the scene scoured by journalists and the public alike for details of the horrific incident.

Likewise, it did not take long before a recording, from a quick-witted passenger on board the BA flight that performed an emergency landing at Heathrow, found its way on to our screens. While both recordings are very different and the outcomes of both are incomparable, the video evidence is irrefutable. Twitter, however, is a different matter.

Twitter is often used, including by journalists, to piece together sketchy information on breaking stories, but its use in determining the facts is limited. It can be useful in the immediate moments after a breaking story, when people tend to say what they have just seen and are describing what is happening in front of them. But before long, it turns into a huge game of Chinese Whispers.

The information gets fragmented, rumour and hearsay quickly take over from fact. The eagerness to  be the first with the news often leads to information going unchecked. In the hours after Wednesday’s attack in Woolwich vastly different accounts of the same event flooded social media – mostly from people who were not witness to the awful events.

All it takes is one retweet of false information and its usefulness is lost.

Twitter.com: @jonesrhodri