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Aug 1 / King Kaufman

Spreading rumors on Twitter: It’s not the same as office gossip

Piers Morgan

Piers Morgan

We talked last week about unsubstantiated rumors flying around on Twitter. As a followup, consider two pieces that also appeared late last week, one defending the practice of repeating such rumors, another arguing the opposite.

A widely repeated Twitter rumor had talk-show host Piers Morgan suspended by CNN for his alleged role in Britain’s phone-hacking scandal when he was editor of News of the World, the now-closed paper at the center of the mess. The rumor was false.

On his personal Tumblr, Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon wrote that the incident was no big deal:

One of the things I like about Twitter is that it behaves in many ways a lot more like a newsroom than a newspaper. Rumors happen there, and then they get shot down—no harm no foul.

Felix Salmon

Felix Salmon

I think that big flagship Twitter accounts like @Reuters or @WSJ should be held to a higher standard. But for the rest of us, we’re conversing on Twitter just like we converse in real life. In the newsroom, we say things like “did you hear that Piers Morgan just got suspended?” and that’s fine. Is it really that bad to say that kind of thing in the new newsroom called Twitter? I don’t think so.

Rem Rieder, the editor of the American Journalism Review, does think so.

In a piece headlined “Spreading Rumors on Twitter: Why that’s not the way to go,” Rieder wrote that Salmon’s argument doesn’t hold up.

Rem Rieder

Rem Rieder

“It’s one thing to gossip with a couple of colleagues at the watercooler or at the bar,” Rieder wrote. “It’s quite another to send completely unsubstantiated information out to the world at large.” He points to “that bleak moment in January when NPR incorrectly reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died. The Salmon approach increases that danger exponentially.”

Rieder also wonders what the upside is to tweeting false information, asking rhetorically what it adds to the conversation to tweet something that might or might not be true.

“More than ever in the past, a reporter’s individual reputation, or brand, matters,” Rieder wrote. “With the way people access information now, they are apt to seek out individual writers rather than specific news organizations. And what can damage a reporter’s credibility more than distributing bad information?”

I love reading Felix Salmon’s work and have a lot of respect for him, but I’m with Rieder on this one. As Rieder points out, Salmon might think of Twitter as a “new newsroom,” but far more people use it as a news service.

I think it’s smart to think of it that way too. As with content in any other format, as Rieder puts it, “If you haven’t checked it out, keep it to yourself—or tell your pals in an actual newsroom.”