In the early hours of 14 February 2013, South Africans were rudely awakened by the buzz of non-stop online chatter. It was around the same time when most people were making their way to work, or pouring their first cup of coffee.
The news had just broken that model Reeva Steenkamp had been fatally shot at the residence of Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius.
Afrikaans newspaper Beeld was first to break the news globally and took a bold decision to post a tweet on Twitter at 8.03am with a simple message which read “Oscar Pistorius skiet sy vriendin in sy huis dood omdat hy glo dink sy is ‘n inbreker” (Oscar Pistorius shoots his girlfriend dead in his house after thinking she’s a burglar).
By the time the first tweet went out, Beeld’s journalists were hard at work putting copy together for an article on the newspaper’s website. About a minute later, a small article appeared online, which fleshed out more details from the tweet.
“Before we broke the story (on Twitter) there was a conversation between all the senior editors, the editor and the assistant editor about how solid was our information and were we willing to go with it,” Beeld news editor Pieter du Toit told Grubstreet Media Intelligence’s Gill Moodie.
The initial tweet from Beeld did not gain a lot of traction. It was not until Talk Radio 702’s technology journalist Aki Anastasiou tweeted “Hectic News @beeld_nuus is reporting that Oscar Pistorius shot & killed his girlfriend this morning thinking she was a burglar” four minutes later that the world started to take notice of the news.
With Beeld’s more than 29 000 followers and Anastasiou’s 38 600 followers, the news spread across the internet like wildfire, filtering its way through other social media networks.
But how strong is the power of Twitter? Can the microblogging site be seen as a credible way of conveying important and breaking news?
“Yes I do think so, provided the sources that are sending the tweets are credible. Twitter is like a massive spider web, many journalists and media organisations today have thousands of followers. These followers are eyewitnesses to events as they happen and when they happen, they share that information, making gathering of breaking news very powerful because of Twitter’s immediacy,” Anastasiou told IT News Africa.
World Wide Worx managing director Arthur Goldstuck echoed the same sentiment. “Twitter is not a credible news source in itself, but when credible news sources use it to break news, it is the most powerful news breaking medium yet.”
Goldstuck also firmly believes that Beeld would have missed a golden opportunity if they decided to run the story on the website first, and then tweet about it.
“Beeld would have been remiss NOT to tweet it first. Once it’s been tweeted by news media, an event like this is an “actual story”. Print follows a day later, so can only be used to build out the story and go into detail, rather than to break the main story.”
As far as Anastasiou is concerned, Beeld made the right decision. “Absolutely. Any media organisation would have done the same thing. Traditional media platforms have diversified and a print publication for example needs to have an effective digital strategy. The two work hand in hand,” he said.
“Traditional media simply cannot ignore social media. It was most certainly the right decision to break the story on Twitter. If they had waited for print they would have lost several hours before the print edition came out.”
As mentioned by Beeld’s staff, the newspaper fact-checked all their sources and came to the conclusion that their information was solid, and proceeded to tweet about it – something which Goldstuck agrees with.
“Even putting it up on the web site before tweeting it would not be the best way to handle a story of this nature. If they know they can back it up, then Twitter is the first port of call.”
Anastasiou is also part of Talk Radio 702’s Eye Witness News team (EWN), and although they had the same information and were seconds away from breaking the story, he reiterates how important it is to get the facts right before going online.
“At EWN we had the same information from different sources and we were seconds behind Beeld in breaking the story as were other media organisations. When a sensational story like this breaks, it so important to verify the information. Getting it wrong can be disastrous,” he explained.
The microblogging site has seen a surge in user activity in the last couple of years (even months), with more people joining the service. As the user numbers grow, many are familiarising themselves with local and international news sources, and has potentially changed the way we use social media.
“Social media has changed the way we use breaking news, rather than the other way round. However, many people now use Twitter as their breaking news service. They have grown to trust the established media outlets on Twitter, and often prefer it to following news sites on the Web, since they can get an instant view of dozens of outlets as opposed to visiting their sites one by one in the expectation of seeing something new,” Goldstuck said.
But he does have some words of advice for users who keep a beady eye on the service for breaking news. In the case of Oscar Pistorius, the news was broken on the Twitter account of a reputable newspaper, but that might not always be the case.
“Early tweets of breaking news must always be treated with caution. Until it has been confirmed by several sources or an official (e.g. police) source, a story of this magnitude remains speculation and allegation.”
Goldstuck added that “however, it is also an alert to all other media that they have breaking news on their hands. In the same way you wouldn’t run banner headlines based on one anonymous caller’s tip-off without verifying the claims, you wouldn’t go large on one unverified tweet.”
Anastasiou concluded by saying even though the story was made public on the internet, the key to keeping a story relevant is to provide more information across as many platforms as possible.
“It is imperative to manage the process properly and responsibly. It also depends how you carry that story forward. It is all very well to break a news story on Twitter but the key is to deploy journalists and keep that story alive by providing clarity and reporting accurately as the event unfolds. Taking the story forward to the next level, utilising your resources and engaging with your audience across all platforms is the challenge, and is what will set you apart from the rest.”
*Image of Oscar Pistorius via Shutterstock
Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor