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Data editors cut to the meat of news-centered tweets

Twitter, the global real-time communication platform with 400 million monthly visitors and a billion tweets every 2.5 days has become an ever-increasing powerhouse in the field of breaking news journalism.

Anyone with a smart phone can become an instant journalist on Twitter, often breaking news faster than major media outlets. Twitter has made news more democratic and accessible, but when fast becomes more important than right, the integrity of the information and the reliability of the source is compromised. This was most recently evident in the reporting fiasco of the Boston Marathon bombings, where innocent people were accused of committing crimes, tarnishing their reputations all from a 140 character tweet. So, how does Twitter combat this problem?

In comes new hire Simon Rogers, a former data journalist for The Guardian newspaper, who will become Twitter’s first-ever “data editor” at the end of this month. While his day-to-day responsibilities remain fuzzy, Rogers has described his new role as an opportunity to act “as a human bridge between data that’s tricky to understand and a wider audience that wants to understand it.” In essence, he will sift through millions of daily tweets to uncover rare and compelling stories that lay underneath all of the re-tweets, while hopefully acting as a watchful eye on confusing or misleading news.

By hiring Rogers to serves as a prudent, discerning data editor, Twitter aims to become a more credible, reliable source of serious journalism, while offering more transparency and focus to its audience. But, will it work? Can Twitter really offer reliable news tips or will it continue to be a vehicle for long-respected journalists and news outlets to potentially ruin their credibility?

Steve Buttry believes it’s “absolutely” possible. With more than 40 years of experience in news and a 2010 Editor of the Year award under his belt, the digital transformation editor at Digital First Media has insight into how a data editor may be able to reshape how news gets broken.

“I think that Twitter needs to do a better job of dealing with journalists, and they can help us use it more effectively.” According to Buttry, Digital First Media already has a data team that operates in a similar fashion to what Rogers will do at Twitter. “Depending on their roles and what stories they are researching, their duties are different and the ways they approach things are different. But the position has been around and a lot of people are already [doing this type of work],” he explained. So, it appears Twitter is catching up to how other media outlets already analyze social media sites to find new stories.

But Twitter hasn’t been a place known for accurate reporting recently. Journalists have been sacrificing right for fast, which inVocus recently covered in relation to the Boston Marathon bombings. “If you don’t have it right, you don’t have it at all…if someone is tweeting news, you should verify that,” said Buttry.

Having a data editor for Twitter on big days like the Oklahoma tornadoes or the Boston Marathon bombings could be helpful, according to Buttry. Someone like Rogers might be able to verify information that would otherwise get blindly retweeted.

“A data editor can be very helpful by doing some investigate reporting and being a good journalist by verifying the information [being tweeted],” he explained. For instance, in the Boston Marathon bombing shootout between police and the two suspects, Buttry described how a man, @AKitz (or Andrew Kitzenberg), was tweeting during the shootout. “It happened right outside of his house and he was tweeting updates and pictures and he was accurate. The pictures were poor quality, but he was right there. That was valuable, helpful tweeting. If the Twitter data editor could quickly confirm someone tweeting like that, it might be helpful both to the user and to journalists, so 45 journalists don’t have to reach out and verify it. Lots of reporters ended up interviewing him – that will still happen – but some verification of people and things and breaking news would be helpful.”

Although Rogers’ specific duties as Twitter’s data editor have yet to be outlined, it appears that he could do much more than discover uncovered news stories. He could act as a buffer between journalists and the misinformed tweets that upset promising careers. As news continues to break, it will be interesting to see how Rogers handles the next scandal or hard-hitting event and whether having an extra pair of eyes can make a difference.

-Cara Gavin

Check out Tuesday’s Focus on the Media with our resident media experts as they discuss more on the concept of accuracy over speed, as well as social media’s role in reporting.  

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