Twitter: too much information?

Cheryl McGrath / September 03, 2013 11:08 PM

It’s become a common catchphrase in the news: “Twitter broke the story”. Whether it’s the birth of the royal baby or the war in Syria, you just about always can count on Twitter to have a hash tag trending.  But is there such a thing as too much information?

 

I was thinking about this when the Margaret Gee's Australian Media Guide team hit the Melbourne Writers Festival's New News sessions at ACMI on Friday, where Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston recounted the story of footballer John McCarthy’s tragic death in Las Vegas.

Thousands of kilometres from home, the death was mysterious and speculation of suicide was rife across social media. Although news outlets only tweeted that an Australian sportsman had been involved in an incident, it only took 20 minutes for McCarthy’s name and details to be bandied about across Twitter. A tribute page already had 32,000 likes an hour and a half before the details were officially released.

And this was hours before the last of McCarthy’s family had been informed back home in Australia.

Stories like this are a definite wake-up call. Social media is peddled as a way of connecting and sharing with friends, but clearly it goes much further than that. Anyone with a Twitter account – or any global social media account – can be a journalist now. Whether they’re commenting on the Syria crisis or posting a drunken status update, they have a live audience with a reach as far as their comment is retweeted.

Which is where the problem of ethics comes in.

Where the mainstream media held off publishing McCarthy’s name before the official announcement, Twitter doesn’t have a code of ethics. And although some tweeters apologised after, it was too late.

For someone like me, who tends to think of social media as just a way of updating family and friends on my latest job or new car, this is a jolt.

The tweeters who broke the news too early that day may have been intentionally wanting to be “first”, but to be honest, I imagine a lot of it was just not thinking about the consequences. Surely no one who heard about Jill Meagher’s death would wish the trial of Adrian Bayley to be compromised - yet Tom Meagher was forced to plead with the public not to discuss the murder of his wife on social media. Even the most well-meaning tweeters can be wrong.

Can we get a social conscience to go with our social media? 

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