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This article was published on August 8, 2011

London riots needed Twitter news curators, but where are they and who pays for them?

London riots needed Twitter news curators, but where are they and who pays for them?

The past two nights saw violence and looting in north London as protesters took to the streets – first to express their frustration with the police following a recent shooting, and then last night, it seems, simply to cause trouble and get free goods from shops.

With TV news struggling to keep up and Twitter racing ahead of events like an excited child, we really need trustworthy people to sort truth from fiction in real time on Twitter – it’s one of the new functions of journalism. But who do we trust – and who pays for Twitter journalism?

As you’d expect, last night Twitter was busy with reports of incidents taking place around the city. It was hard to tell what was accurate, what was exaggerated and what was plain false. Like many others in this situation, I turned to the 24 hour rolling news channels for – I hoped – some clarity on exactly what was happening. Instead, I saw live reports from the scene of earlier disturbances which had since subsided, and pre-recorded reports on the aftermath of the previous night’s events.

TV can’t keep pace with Twitter

I asked Neal Mann, a freelance journalist who was working for Sky News last night, why there had been no mention of wider disturbances beyond the location of the evening’s first outbreak, Enfield, despite widespread reports on Twitter. His reply? “People have to be aware of TV logistics very different to print journalists.”

Yes, TV couldn’t keep up – and with good reason. Camera crews can’t magically appear at the scene of a reported incident, and the nature of Twitter means that a small incident can be blown out of all proportion as multiple retweets and retellings of the same story amplify the significance of minor events. Like the rest of us, TV journalists were trying to unpick truth from fiction with the added problem that they can’t report on rumours as readily as we might like them to – especially when they have few facts to share with us and no-one on the scene.

One solution to this problem that has been proffered a number of times of late is ‘journalist-curators’, who scour Twitter for news of an unfolding event and use their skills to sort the fact from the fiction. An oft-cited good example of this kind of journalist is NPR’s Andy Carvin who has been covering this year’s Middle East uprisings as they occurred via his Twitter account, through well-chosen retweets, while skilfully unpicking rumours to get to the truth.

The aforementioned Neal Mann does a similar job in the UK during breaking news scenarios. As I’ve previously noted, he was one of the few journalists to check the facts when it was widely, and falsely, claimed on Twitter that Piers Morgan had been suspended from his job at CNN.

No matter how good they are though, there are two problems with these Twitter-based curators of news:

How do we find them?

No matter how good a reputation these curators may have, it can be difficult for the average Twitter user without journalistic training to tell the difference between someone filtering facts from rumours and someone just retweeting everything they hear that sounds juicy. The ‘flat’ nature of Twitter means that all users have equal importance. While that may be a blessing in most cases, when it comes to assessing trustworthiness, of someone you’ve never heard of before, it can be a problem.

Potential solution: It’s not ideal, but some kind of ‘accreditation’ for journalists skilled at acting as a Twitter-based news filter might be one solution. This could be similar to the ‘Verified User’ badge placed by Twitter on high-profile users’ accounts to help people differentiate real and fake celebrity accounts.

‘Accredited’ Twitter journalists would have the obligation to report responsibly on Twitter but would have the benefit of their tweets showing up more prominently in search results for breaking news events which they’re covering. Of course, this places an increased administration burden on Twitter staff, and would likely lead to a rush of journalists applying to get the accredited status, if only to satisfy their ego.

Who pays them?

Most news agencies have Twitter accounts for one reason – to drive traffic to their websites. There’s little value in breaking news in a tweet unless that tweet is accompanied by a link that will drive eyeballs to your website where advertising revenue can be accrued. Therefore, there’s little incentive to have someone acting as ‘a news agency for Twitter’ in an official capacity for a news brand.

Andy Carvin works for NPR, which is a public service broadcaster; Neal Mann is freelance. While there are some examples of good commercial news brands employing someone to perform a journalistic function largely on Twitter (Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa springs to mind), it’s simply not in most of their interests to do that. Why sacrifice a traffic-driving scoop by discussing it on Twitter first and tipping off your rivals to it?

Potential solution: As this form of journalism develops, established major news brands may adopt the process on officially branded accounts. I can see the BBC, for example, doing this as it lacks the commercial imperative to drive traffic to its site. Commercial news organisations may see real-time curation-journalism as a useful brand-building exercise, but the need to link to their own websites could dissuade them from linking to rival sources, thus reducing their value to readers.

Better filters for emerging events are desperately needed on Twitter, but we’re still a long way away from them being commonplace and easily findable by all users of the service.