Thursday 17 January 2013

Journalism, Twitter & Al-Shabaab

Frank Gardner
Earlier this morning I was on a bus trundling up a frozen Uxbridge Road in West London. Nothing unusual there.

But on my phone I was reading a press statement that had just been posted by Al-Shabaab in Somalia, relating to what they claimed was the execution they had just carried out of French hostage Denis Alex.

This is the same Twitter account which posted images of a dead French commando who had taken part in a disastrous raid aimed to rescue Mr Alex, earlier this week.

Half an hour later I saw a tweet come through from Frank Gardner, the BBC's Middle East correspondent, reporting that Al-Shabaab had made this claim. Nothing else and no reference to where he had heard this information. So I pointed this out, with the admittedly juvenile hashtag #redundant, because with the remaining 15 charecters I couldn't make the point I really wanted to make.

Before I had time to send a second pointing out that perhaps the real story was that in the Al-Shabaab statement there is a detailed account of the negotiations the group claims that they had with the French intelligence services, which directly contradicts in some detail that given by the French Government, Mr Gardner replied with the equally juvenile response to the effect that I no longer needed to follow him, then, and promptly blocked me!

In hindsight the hashtag was a bit childish, I shouldn't have used it and actually I have the highest respect for Mr Gardner who is a first class journalist. But I do think there is a valid point to be made about the role of social media and journalisms response to it, which at the moment seems to me to be problematic.

Twitter is limited in two ways: tweets can only ever be snippets and the whole point of it is to talk about the here and now, not anything deeper. Put that with the increasing reliance of the media on the medium as a primary source and you have the beginning, possibly imperceptibly, of a skew of their own coverage in the same directions: increasingly limited in scope and confined to the immediate present. 

Do I believe that Al-Shabaab are telling the truth in their account of the negotiations that took place? No. But then I also don't believe the French Government's version on the same basis that they both have far too many reasons not to give an honest account. Instead of probing that, or perhaps any other angle that goes beyond the fact that Mr Alex was killed, all we got was a "breaking news" tweet that failed even to cite the source. (there was space to do so) When you start to get that from someone as good as Frank Gardner surely there is a problem, including of redundant reporting.

Looking at the growing way in which armed groups are using social media for propaganda and even incitement of others, there is clearly a challenge for Governments. But for the media there is arguably a greater challenge: to avoid the temptation simply to repeat what has been "announced" as if it is some kind of exclusive when it's actually been posted to the world, and perhaps also to look a little bit deeper into the story beyond the here and now instead of being caught up in the social media race to be first.

Correspondents are no longer the sole gateways to information for the rest of the world, but many are in privileged positions of access. Maybe leaving the Twitter-frenzy competition to be "first" with the "breaking news" to the newswires and returning more to explaining than describing would be a good first step.

UPDATE: I've just had an interesting chat with a journalist working in the same field, who asks me back - why should they cite Twitter when they don't cite press releases, emails or phone calls. Which seems like a fair point. They argued that Twitter is now mainstream and don't accept the point I make about skewing coverage ...  which is fair enough, I'm only asking the question!

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