DEFIESTA: Tweeting the lockdown

Waking up on the first morning of my trip to Mexico, I learned my friends back on campus could soon be dead.

Or so I thought, the Yale Alert that warned me of a gunman at the University. I jumped online to search for answers to my questions: Who was the gunman? Was anybody hurt? How did this all start?

But minutes after the alert was sent out, the Yale Daily News didn’t have anything on its website. Neither, then, did anything appear on the New Haven Independent or the Register. The three biggest news organizations around campus offered little information for a student trying to figure out what was going on from vacation — much less for students still on campus trying to figure out what they needed to do to remain safe.

So I turned to Twitter, a technology some of my friends mock for what they perceive as its shallowness, questioning how anything significant can possibly be conveyed in 140 characters. But this sentiment comes from those unable or unwilling to engage with the technology in any meaningful way. My own use of Twitter has evolved over the years, from Facebook status-like postings to a journalistic tool for me to find and distribute information.

Last week, professional reporters and casual student users tweeted information about the campus lockdown far more quickly than any web-based article could be updated. As each new piece of information was found — an email from New Haven Police Department spokesman David Hartman, photos of SWAT teams entering Old Campus with rifles drawn — it entered the Twitterverse almost instantly. By the time newspapers produced stories detailing the lockdown, they seemed hopelessly outdated, eclipsed by the latest happenings on campus.

That day, Twitter’s value in breaking news coverage should have swayed most naysayers. Much-needed information reached followers at a rapid pace — I can imagine few other scenarios where transmission speed is quite as critical — and the situation was tracked throughout the day, helping those concerned with what was happening on campus stay informed.

Last Monday was largely a breaking news success story. But that’s not to say there weren’t lessons to be drawn from how the lockdown was covered; any media platform has its weaknesses, and Twitter is no exception.

The overwhelming amount of information, for one, tended to be incredibly chaotic for most people. With so many tweets each second, how can one be expected to discern the noise from the signal, to produce any sort of coherent account of what was happening?

Some tried to solve this by aggregating information on their own timeline, while others made publicly accessible lists of the most relevant people and organizations to follow for updates. Apps like Storify exist for this very purpose, pulling tweets, photos and more to build timelines of what happened. But in the first, chaotic moments of a story, it’s still difficult to filter out what doesn’t matter.

Next, verification posed some problems, as it tends to with any breaking news coverage. But the issue of knowing which bits of information are trustworthy runs deeper on Twitter, where anyone can tweet what they want regardless of the truth.

Just like erroneous reports of a gunman sighted on campus led to an overwhelming response by police, so too can the spread of incorrect information, even if accidental, provoke unnecessary alarm. A report of a grenade in Bingham’s eighth floor library, for example, turned out to be wrong, but not after it had terrified people in the building’s vicinity.

Given these concerns, some have suggested that journalists hold off on tweeting information until its accuracy can be ascertained with certainty. But with something as time-sensitive as a possible shooter on campus, such a delay could be incredibly harmful. Besides, tweets will be flying anyway — better to have them curated by a reputable media source than go unchecked.

All of us, as a community and as regular consumers of news, need to understand the limitations of breaking news coverage. Reporters should use terms like “reports say,” “unconfirmed,” and “possible” to indicate the inherent uncertainty in up-to-the-minute coverage; readers must understand what these phrases mean and accept such ambiguity as the price to pay for near-instant updates.

In the end, though, it also behooves us to remember that traditional media is often wrong in these breaking news situations, too. The rumor of the grenade in Bingham came from a source who hardly seems questionable: a reporter for a local TV station who cited police.

Ultimately, in the case of breaking news — and not just on Twitter — journalists need to report on an event accurately and quickly, and let readers know about any ambiguity in their reporting. Consumers, meanwhile, should understand the natural limitations imposed by breaking news coverage, and must do what reporters are already paid for: Be skeptical.

Nick Defiesta is a senior in Berkeley College and a former city editor for the News. Contact him at nick.defiesta@yale.edu.

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