How Many More People Can Irresponsible Journalists Kill on Twitter?

Reporters lose credibility every time they Tweet erroneously.

Like J. Alfred Prufrock in a social-media world, I have heard the mermaids tweeting, but I do not think they will tweet to me.

Even if they did, however, I would find a way to resist their Twitterized siren song. Why? I place a high value on credibility, and tweets have become frighteningly unreliable in that regard. Even when they’re from trusted professional sources.

The very thing that has catapulted Twitter to the top of the personal-communications pyramid–supersonic speed and reach–is what ultimately will lead to its 140-character demise.

Just over a week ago,, MSNBC-owned @BreakingNews and Huffington Post, among others, reported—erroneously—that Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died. The mainstream sources had all picked up on a tweet by Onward State, a student-run Penn State website.

Yes, the information was quickly corrected, but the dominos had fallen. Paterno fans were put into shock prematurely, albeit, as it turned out, only by a matter of hours. Adam Jacobi, CBS’s senior college-football blogger, got the boot; Onward State managing editor Devon Edwards resigned.

The media was the message, and the message was wrong. Tragically, unequivocally wrong. In a universe in which the shelf life of a story can be measured in tenths of seconds, speed trumped accuracy.

As that legendary journalist, Charlie Sheen, would say: Winning.

Why worry about quality control when you can be first, then clean up the mess later? Indeed, even professionals like Reuters’ Felix Salmon have drunk the Kool-Aid. In his blog, he compared Twitter to a newsroom– rumors catch fire, then get extinguished. “No harm, no foul,” he wrote.

No harm? Tell that to the Paterno family.

In Salmon’s case, he was referring to a July incident, in which Twitter lit up with unsubstantiated “news” that CNN talk-show host Piers Morgan had been suspended. Since the original tweet had been launched by respected British newscaster Jon Snow, Salmon didn’t seem to mind that numerous fellow pros had joined the parade.

What Salmon neglected to mention was that Reuters, along with such other venerable news organizations as the BBC, CNN and NPR, had tweeted in January 2011 that Rep. Gabby Giffords was among those shot to death at her public appearance in Tuscon.


The hard truth is that not everything that is broken can be fixed. Relaying a false death report onto the virtual highway is the moral equivalent of shooting a bullet, with corresponding collateral damage. It hurts, often grievously.

Credibility can be equally fragile. Once you lose it, it can take years to recover, if at all. Sadly, that appears to mean nothing to many who traffic in cyberspace, even to those whose livelihoods depend on it.