Incorrect Tweets: To Delete Or Not To Delete?


Photo: Robert Scoble via Flickr

Last week’s shootings in Tuscon highlighted another of the many issues facing journalism in the new digital world of immediate communications. Some early tweets, from mainstream news organisations like Reuters, CNN, The BBC and NPR, declared Congresswoman Clifford dead.She wasn’t.

The first point to emphasise here is that these incorrect reports were NOT caused by irresponsible internet news organisations prematurely reporting misinformation. This time it was only mainstream media companies that made the initial, incorrect, reports which were then re-tweeted by bloggers and less traditional sources.

Shortly after they learned they were incorrect, Reuters and CNN deleted the incorrect Tweets and posted updated Tweets. NPR and the BBC did not remove the false tweets, but corrected them with later tweets and, in NPR’s case, posted an apology. The question is, which was the best way to go?

This is one of those cases where technology is still evolving and will ultimately have to match up with the needs of the media industry. Most media companies would want to give consumers transparency into the decision making process.

From a journalistic viewpoint The ideal situation would be to leave the incorrect tweets up, so people know they were reported, but to be able to label those particularly tweets with a correction, so they couldn’t be misread again as the truth. That’s not possible right now, which caused the problem we saw the other day: Even after the reports were proven wrong, some tweeters were still finding and retweeting the incorrect reports that the congresswoman had died.

From the moment news organisations started to publish on the internet, this has been a problem. With many news website front pages being updated hundreds of times a day, there was no real record kept of every version of that front page. As time went on publishing systems started to find ways to preserve timestamped changes. Many are still catching up.

In the future the news organisations will find a way to keep historical record of real-time publishing, no doubt with the help of improved technology. In the meantime I would take the incorrect tweets down, but find a way to save a version of all tweets on the servers, or at least a record of them, to preserve their history. But keep them out of reach of viewers who might be able to find them and retransmit them.

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