A journalistic conundrum: When does Twitter count as a reliable source?

A Twitter logo is seen on a cell phone screen in Tehran, Iran on June 23. Several news outlets, including CNN, have apparently been sourcing articles to tweets from Iran. But should Twitter count as a reliable source?

We've devoted a lot of space here in recent weeks to Twitter, and for good reason: the June 12 elections in Iran were a major turning point for the social network. Whatever you think of Twitter – a lark, a waste of time, a brain-busting sociological malady – it's incontrovertible that the service allowed Americans a peek into a world that would otherwise have been sealed up pretty tightly.

But should Twitter be used as a source for mainstream media outlets? That's the question being raised today after a reporter for BNO News found evidence that CNN has recycled tweets from PersianKiwi, a popular Iranian Twitter user. As BNO's Michael van Poppel discovered, in a June 24 article CNN appears to have repeated several words and phrases from PersianKiwi's feed – and attributed those comments to various "sources."

Here is the lede from the CNN article:

Security forces wielding clubs and firing weapons beat back hundreds of would-be demonstrators who had flocked to a square in the capital on Wednesday to continue protests against an election they have denounced as fraudulent, witnesses told CNN. "They were waiting for us," one source said. "They all have guns and riot uniforms. It was like a mouse trap."

And here is a tweet from PersianKiwi, dated from earlier the same day:

they were waiting for us - they all have guns and riot uniforms - it was like a mouse trap - ppl being shot like animals #Iranelection 9:53 AM Jun 24th from web

Breaking it down

There are a couple issues at play here. First and foremost, why didn't CNN just attribute the quotes to PersianKiwi, or "an Iranian Twitter user"? The network in the past had relied repeatedly – and openly – on Twitter; in one on-air segment, a correspondent read aloud from Iranian Twitter feeds.

According to Gawker's John Cook, a spokesman for CNN today issued the following statement:

Multiple sources contributed to our coverage in this particular report, many directly to CNN. The material was corroborated using various methods, including other first-hand accounts from the scene. Regrettably, two of these specific quotes should have been attributed as coming from an individual on Twitter, as we have done on numerous other occasions.

There's also the question of whether traditional media outlets should rely on Twitter at all – even if the tweets have been "corroborated using various methods." In a June 17 column for the Huffington Post, media analyst Farai Chideya argued that, yes, journalists should feel free to utilize Twitter, but only after doing their due diligence.

"I am not saying don't follow Twitter (again, that would be useless)," Chideya wrote. "I do want to follow Twitter, on #IranElections and all else. What I don't want to do is give up the idea of verifying information."

In related news, Editor and Publisher, a trade magazine, recently launched a poll, asking users to name their favorite news site. Several have already picked Twitter.


Do you trust news from Twitter? Tell us here – or on Twitter.

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