When encouraging student journalists to join Twitter, I’ve explained to them why I think Twitter is important. In my view, it’s the way in which information is quickly updated and shared on Twitter that has made it such a powerful tool in journalism.
But if accurate reports of some newsworthy event can spread rapidly on Twitter, so too can unverified rumours, gossipy half-truths and even complete nonsense. To illustrate this point, I can give an example from earlier this year. I (or rather, my young daughter G) briefly became the centre of a political non-scandal, started by a TV reporter’s turn of phrase, stoked by political blogs, and spread on Twitter.
Two days before the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election in January, I went out to cover a visit by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to the local area. Because I combined writing Saddleworth News with being a stay-at-home dad, as usual I took my daughter with me, and I pushed her pram around at the back of the media scrum.
At one point, Clegg began to walk in my general direction, so I picked up my camera and got some shots of him. As he walked, he was being doorstepped in typical style by Michael Crick, then of Newsnight. Crick’s cameraman was walking backwards filming the exchange, and it was too late that I realised he was in fact going to walk straight into us. I shouted “Look out!” and there was a minor bump as the cameraman hit the pram. Clegg leaned over and asked if we were ok, and everyone carried on as before.
Here’s the footage as it was broadcast on Newsnight:
Later, I was kneeling over G’s pram doing up her coat when I became aware of a lot of cameras and flashes going off, and looked up to see Clegg leaning over to say hello. We’d met him for an interview earlier in the campaign, and presumably not seeing many dad-and-baby journalism combinations, he remembered us.
“She really does go everywhere with you, doesn’t she?” he said. “Yes, but she just almost got run over by Newsnight, actually,” I replied. Clegg then walked on and told Crick off: “You just almost ran over that baby,” he tutted to an unimpressed-looking Crick. I later realised it was this quick chat that allowed the TV crews to get more pictures of G, which would eventually prove significant in how the non-scandal played out.
We went to a local pub to wait for interviews with Clegg, and the Newsnight cameraman came over and apologised straight away, not that it was a big deal as far as I was concerned. I wrote the story up on Saddleworth News in a straightforward way, and didn’t mention the bump with the cameraman.
It was at about 7pm that evening that I checked my phone and found a huge amount of baffling tweets and texts, mostly asking if G was ok. Looking back through the rapidly-increasing number of tweets, I saw that one in particular had sparked things off. Written by a Labour-supporting political blog, it said: “We’re getting reports that Nick Clegg has kicked a baby in Oldham.” This was already being gleefully retweeted and commented on by people from all over the country. And it had all happened while I’d been getting the tea ready.
It turned out that the “reports” in question came from the BBC. In fact, it was North West Tonight, the BBC’s evening regional news programme. Its report on Clegg’s visit had begun with footage of the cameraman bumping into the pram, while the reporter’s voice over cheerily intoned: “Politicians are supposed to kiss babies, not knock them over.” The reporter had obviously decided this incident was the most interesting thing to happen during Clegg’s visit and, because he’d also got more pictures of G taken during our later conversation with Clegg, he had enough material to use it as the ‘hook’ or ‘peg’ for his package. But taken out of context, his throwaway phrase had rapidly taken on a life of its own.
I decided the best thing to do would be to issue a denial right away, naturally enough on Twitter, in the hope I might be able to stop the speculation before it had spread too far. “I’d like to make it clear that Nick Clegg didn’t knock over my daughter!” I tweeted, before adding that G was eating her tea and therefore unavailable for comment. This also quickly spread around Twitter, and the blog which had sent the initial tweet sent another one reflecting what I’d said (but not before direct messaging me in the hope I’d give them some juicy details about the alleged baby-kicking).
I watched Newsnight and saw myself again, as Crick also used the footage to begin his report, although without the unfortunate choice of words favoured by his BBC colleague. I got a few more tweets and texts expressing surprise at my appearance on the telly, and thought that was probably the end of the matter.
My phone went the following morning. It was a Labour press officer. “You’re on the front page of Politics Home!” And sure enough I was. In my rush to tweet a denial of the alleged baby-kicking, I’d forgotten that the very fact I’d denied the incident would give anyone who fancied it the opportunity to report the story based on my statement. A ‘denial story’ as it’s sometimes called. “Nick Clegg kicked a baby” is defamatory, but “Man denies Nick Clegg kicked his baby” isn’t.
To use another journalism term, my denial had given the whole thing ‘legs’ – and on the last day of a hard-fought and close-run by-election, there was reason enough for people to write about it. Later in the day, the story turned up on the best-known political blog, Guido Fawkes. The Guido piece rather bizarrely cast doubt on my denial, despite the fact I was clearly there and he, well, wasn’t: “Guido isn’t so sure though, especially when you look at the footage… There’s definitely some sort of contact.” There wasn’t any contact between Clegg and the pram, but I suppose the story was too good to check, as an old editor of mine used to say.
The whole non-scandal didn’t really have any impact on anything. I doubt too many Saddleworth voters swung to Labour at the last minute because they’d read the Guido Fawkes blog. If nothing else, it gave the politicians and journalists something to have a laugh about while standing around on cold streets in the final hours of the by-election campaign.
But there’s still something to learn from my experience about the reliability of information on Twitter. Although it’s widely known that a lot of the information on Twitter can be exaggerated, or downright false, one accepted way to test something is to check the source of the information. If it’s something reliable, like a reputable media organisation or journalist, then you’d expect the information to stand a better chance of being accurate.
In this case, the source of the initial information was the very reliable BBC, albeit in the form of a reporter’s comment taken out of context by political blogs, which are of varying reliability and usually have their own agendas. Repetition can bring a certain degree of credibility to any piece of information, which is how urban myths start. In this case it was not the original BBC story which was repeated, but the exaggerated and out-of-context idea that Clegg had kicked a baby.
Checking the source of information on Twitter isn’t enough. The original context of how that information first came to be reported can be just as important. If a story based on tweets seems too good to be completely true, the chances are it probably is.