When James French became the last person to be executed in 1966 under Oklahoma’s death penalty law, he uttered these famous last words (no joke) that quickly belong to the ages: “Hey fellas,” he shouted to reporters there to witness his electrocution. “How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? ‘French Fries!’”
Shortly after that, French became toast. The way some critics of the social media Twitter dismiss its journalistic role during and immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing almost seem like famous last words. In fact, the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath left Twitter a force to be reckoned with -- far more of a perceived threat to television news than to print or online newspapers, and magazines. Broadcasters better harness and use its potential or they’re in big trouble.
The use of Twitter in the Boston Marathon tragedy started within seconds of the bombs exploding. According to the website Mashable, a map created by an enterprising Syracuse University professor and his students found some 200 Tweets were sent from the bomb scene over the blast’s first hours. But that was only the beginning.
Why is Twitter being underestimated by many professional media types as a truly formidable player in news the future? Once upon a time, a reporter who could express a viewpoint, or give information in 140 characters would be an editor’s dream. But whether it’s wisecracks, links to posts or developments during a crisis, Tweets quickly communicate information tidbits sent out as fast as it takes to type.
But there’s another reason. It was once predicted that weblogs would create a series of citizen journalists who researched, reported, investigated, and wrote pieces equivalent to newspaper reports. That largely has not happened. Today, most “blogs” are glorified extended op-ed pages, often written by unabashed partisans, but they differ from newspaper op-ed pieces in one respect: many blog posts would never be run in a daily newspaper because the tepid quality of writing, thought and argument. Many left and right blog posts read as if they’re regurgitated left and right talk show host rants.
In reality, blogs haven’t created “citizen journalists” -- but Twitter has. They are citizen journalists who -- unlike newspaper and broadcast reporters, and even less than bloggers -- don’t have to worry if they get it wrong. And errors were made: much of the breaking news tweets on the nights police battled the terrorist suspects was based on things picked up on a police scanner, sometimes misheard. The New York Post ran a SCREAMING HEADLINE based on wrong suspect identification and -- no surprise -- Rupert Murdoch in effect stood by it. Police warned Tweeters not to give away police positions or detail their movements, but it often did no good.
The Twitter star became twitter.com/newsbreaker. The get-it-fast-and-right media star became NBC’s Pete Williams. Over the years, print newspapers were battered by the impact of television evening news, supermarket tabloid scoops, the Internet and the recession -- but there are signs they are now adapting and surviving. Twitter will seriously batter broadcast news because it’s faster, and more dramatic and happening in real time (accurate or not) -- and in future crises many people will turn to it. Twitter is an opportunity for television news not to merely feel threatened, but to learn from the experience and grow because of it.
The bad news: Twitter has no verifiers. The good news: It was indispensible during Boston Marathon hell week. The unbelievable news: Rep. Anthony Weiner is back on Twitter. All of this shows you the cultural ecstasy -- and agony -- of the 140-character instant-info phenomena.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org