We like Twitter at Channel 4 News. Before @SamiraAhmedC4 was born in the spring I had two pieces of advice from old Twitter hands (one a science journalist) I trusted: 1. Twitter works best as a two way networking tool – asking as much as telling. And 2. The science writer Ben Goldacre can get a bit aggressive on it.
On Monday, as I sat compiling the "newsbelt" section of the bulletin, there was a kind of virtual collision between the two, culminating in a full apology from Goldacre for getting his science facts wrong and launching a personal attack on my journalistic integrity. I appreciated his being gracious enough to acknowledge the error speedily and publicly.
Here's what happened. Spotting a story my colleague had written, based on Press Association copy about the urban renewal of Blackpool, I saw a suspiciously complex looking formula. I tweeted it and asked my followers about the pronunciation of the mathematical symbols in it. I assumed the scientists out there would tell me, in the wonderful way of Twitter, if there was anything fishy about the story. A few followers, including a very polite gentlemen in Tehran, got straight back with explanations. Most urged caution, as it smacked of a PR trick. But one had alerted Goldacre, who, as he would probably admit, released the online hounds, urging his 56,835 followers to "pre-mock" Channel 4 News for "covering this bullshit".
A few voices dissented from his instruction. Even fewer stuck up for me and took him on. Most stayed silent. (A few journalists and scientists sent direct messages to me afterwards to say they were appalled but didn't dare risk attracting his attention). Then someone found a link to the original piece of research. It proved we weren't being duped. Suddenly Goldacre fully apologized on Twitter, several times. Most of the mob apologised too.
There are lessons for my profession here. Reputation is the key. We all enjoy self-styled sheriffs like Goldacre roaming the web setting their posses on quack doctors. But journalists like me, who work for major news broadcasters, operate under a code of conduct broadly similar to our television content. There are disclaimers like mine on many reporters' Twitter profiles, about opinions being my own, not ITN's. (I now think twice before tweeting about Jon Snow's new coat.) And yet my colleagues and I are of course accountable for not compromising Channel 4 News' impartiality.
Twitter isn't about broadcasting; its unique quality is the two-way interaction. When I ask what people think about a story four hours before we go on air, it's an opportunity potentially to shape a story's treatment and influence the running order. Smart followers even tweet me stories they think are worth investigating, or flag up interesting points in a running story in time to incorporate them. All are subject to the same standards of research and sourcing as any other material.
I've deliberately been following a range of scientists and scientific journals, precisely because of the ability to engage directly with people who might know more about the details of a complex issue. Most understand that science can be reported concisely without replicating the dense content of an academic treatise, and that it's ok for it to be fun occasionally too, as the Blackpool story was.
My brief experience on the wrong side of Goldacre was over as quickly as it started. There is no bad feeling on either side. I just hope instances like this don't limit the potential of these social networks. It would be a pity to return to the old way of doing things: journalists only ringing up people they know well to sound out stories, and potentially then drawing their interviewees from a narrow pool – the same old faces. There'll always be idiots out there with vitriol to spare for anyone "on the telly", but influential figures who claim to be upholders of truth should perhaps think a little harder about their responsibilities too.
Samira Ahmed is a presenter and reporter for Channel 4 NewsReuse content