Guest post: Twitter breaks the news

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

Ashton Katzer, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior majoring in journalism and English, plans to pursue her love for traveling by working for a travel magazine after college. She has a passion for Tar Heel basketball and all things related to Tudor England.

Recently, users on the Web site Twitter, which allows people to post short messages of 140 characters along with pictures from computers or cell phones, have been breaking news before traditional news media. Examples include the Mumbai attacks and the Amsterdam plane crash. With a micro-blogging site disseminating news first, traditional news outlets are going to have to evaluate their news judgment and find different angles to the news.

Because Twitter eliminates the freshness of a news story even quicker than online news sites, the other news elements are going to become that much more important. Even though Twitter broke the Hudson River plane crash story, the The News & Observer wrote a story that used a local angle, writing about Nick Gamache, a sales engineer from Raleigh.

Some media outlets have decided to join Twitter and post their own “Tweets” about the news-gathering process. Doing this shows that the traditional can mix with new. Doing this also allows reporters to break news before other news outlets if they are at the right place at the right time. And since more judges are allowing Twitter to be used in the courtroom, reporters have the opportunity to give immediate updates on trials.

Even Washington has discovered Twitter, with senators like John McCain and Claire McCaskill regularly posting to Twitter. Also, some congressmen were Twittering during President Barack Obama’s presidential address on Tuesday, Feb. 24, allowing their “followers” to immediately know their perspective on what the president was saying.

This is something the traditional news media have no way to do. Now the people, whom journalists are charged to watch over, are able to tell the news before the media can, and that means that the news media are going to have to work even harder to offer a fair, balanced and accurate picture of the political scene.

While Twitter has the advantage in getting big news events out to the public first, the traditional news media can use this tool. By simply browsing Twitter regularly, reporters can get ideas for new stories that they otherwise wouldn’t know about, including the big stories that everyone wants to know about. This approach could improve news judgment in newsrooms.

Users on Twitter can break the news, but 140 characters can only say so much. It’s up the traditional news media to take the news Twitter breaks and expand on it, giving context and making sure the facts are right.