The Twitter news network, Reddit and social media journalism

News of The Boston terrorist attack broke first on TwitterThere have already been so many pieces written about the Boston bombings and the role that social media played in the news coverage, but I wanted to add something on what have been the two main focuses.

We have seen social media play a number of parts, some of which I wrote about here last week, but Twitter and Reddit have been the talking points as the media and social media champions have gone back and forth debating the impact they had in the reporting of the attacks and the subsequent manhunt.

Twitter was where the news broke first, sparking the question once again as to whether it is a news network. As for Reddit, the question was, as Charlie Beckett noted in his piece (well worth a read), that this “might well be the moment when open forums such as Reddit” claim a journalistic role”.

The Twitter News Network

In this CNN clip, one of the pundits make the point that there are now six news networks in “CBS NBC, ABC CNN, Fox and Twitter”.

Is Twitter a news network? Why are we still even asking this question? In every major news story since the coming down of the US Airways flight in the Hudson in 2009, the “Twitter News Network” question is debated. Each time this happens, the tempo of discussion rises as if in direct correlation to the rising number of social media users and the impact that it has on our world.

Twitter likes to describe itself as “the shortest distance between you and what interests you most”. It is all there, but there is rather a lot of news. More than that, it is a place where those big moments are first captured. Barack Obama’s “Four more years” tweet perfectly underscores that.

Jeff Jarvis coined the phrase “Twitter News Network” several years ago to sum up what Twitter has become and for me, that phrase works very well as a way of describing a news distribution platform where news breaks first from Abbottabad and Osama bin Laden, through the US presidential election, to the London helicopter crash and now the events in Boston.

More than anything else, before or like it, Twitter has been largely defined by what its users have made it (use of hashtags and urls) and the development of the platform has followed that curve by responding in part to what users are doing with it. For example, news media were on Twitter from early on, and so eventually Twitter cards were developed so we could see more of the news and video content within Tweets.

The question for me is long settled: TNN (Twitter News Network) is here and it is the most significant digital news platform out there. There are other things that people are keen to say about this issue (it isn’t Reuters or the Press Association), but it is where news breaks first and it is the digital wire service for most of us.


There are, of course, others social media networks available and much happened on Instagram and Facebook during those five days in Boston, but most notably, the Boston story centred on just one other and that was, of course, Reddit. Its name has been writ large on the media landscape and debated fervently.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Reddit. There’s the layout and the look for a start, but mostly, it is the feeling that really it was a huge forum with an overly large interest in cats (ditto for Buzzfeed). That can’t be good.

Reddit was involved quite early on in the story in Boston and it has been a whirlwind of a journey. There has been some good, but mostly not a great day out or an ad for Reddit.

This led Reddit yesterday to make a full blown apology for what some have called digital “vigilantism” in the way users of the site named potential bombers and got it wrong.

Others, as Peter Sigrist points out in a very good post on the Wall, have accused the Reddit community of failing in their attempt to determine the facts through crowdsourcing, But as he asks, how have they done this? I agree entirely. Although I don’t agree with Peter’s conclusions at all.

Yes, it was (as Reddit said in its statement) all started with “noble intentions”, and a well-trodden path it is, but it descended into online witch hunts and dangerous speculation (“Is missing student Sunil Tripathi Marathon Bomber #2?”), which spiralled out of control very quickly in the heat and the hunt for information following the blasts.

I don’t know why a forum of lol cat fans was engaged in identifying terrorists, unless I missed the memo where the FBI outsourced investigative duties to some guys sitting in their bedroom in their underwear.

I jest, Reddit does good work and worked well as a way of keeping people informed and as a clearing house of information, but it remains a decentralised and self-organising notice board.

While in some exceptional cases journalists have tracked down killers this is not the work of journalists and nor should it be and ergo it certainly should not be the work of forum fans on Reddit.

Some commentators, including Paid Content, point to the work done on Syria and the verification function carried out in identifying weapons. This is highlighted as an example of how Reddit is becoming a journalistic endeavour, after one unemployed British man watched hundreds of hours of YouTube.

Again, while at times sifting great quantities of data is something journalists have engaged in (Wikileaks and long investigative pieces etc), this is not generally the work of journalists (and again) nor should it be. This is the work of the intelligence services and other government agencies. In Syria I think this point is more about underreporting in general than anything else.

For me, when it comes down to Reddit, news journalism and Boston, it is simple. How can anyone be surprised that a site like Reddit made a mistake?  People at this point say “look at CNN” and other professional news organisations that also made mistakes in the confusion after the Boston terrorist attack.

That is also not a surprise. As others have said, in the wake of breaking news, rumour and counter rumour are rife. Mistakes aren’t something that as journalists anyone wants to see, but they happen. CNN made them as it rushed to be first. Many others have been there and many others will follow.

If professional journalists are going to make these errors, it is a given that forum users who are not hooked into an array of official sources will certainly do the same. The fact that both Reddit and CNN made mistakes does not excuse Reddit nor does it mean it is suddenly a journalistic site.

That anyone is taking what comes out of these forums seriously is the issue. From Lolz cats to bombers in a single click. One Reddit user put it this way:

“We’re not a news organization, we’re a cute cat and meme organization that happened to be a good vehicle for incoming raw news data. We never claimed to be press, so we shouldn’t be held to those standards.”

Well put and what more do you need to know? Reddit will remain used and loved by many. That clearing house role it plays is something that people find useful, but it isn’t journalism and it isn’t a social media news site. Just lots of lolls.

Follow @gordonmacmillan

  • Brandy

    hmmm.. social media really help us in promoting our business. It helps drive traffic to our websites, thus it makes our business more noticeable to our target market. Reddit is one of my fave aside from twitter. :)

  • Les Thompson

    Great article! Hardly surprising though that CNN is dumping on social media ‘news coverage’. Twitter and other social media are definitely posting raw data…but I argue that instead of criticizing the new media we should pass on some professional skills to them.