BBC learned the hard way that Twitter is not always reliable. I doubt they thought so from the start, but the fact that they screwed up their Mumbai terror reporting running rumors floating on Twitter not only looks bad for the publisher, it also hurts the credibility of user generated content online. Steve Herrmann writes extensively on this on The Editors blog.
Thing is eye witness reports are always hard, and when something like a terrorist attack happens, people talk to each other, broadcasts their message to the world in unedited form. Add rumors and false perceptions to that, and you have the tangle that is the web today. It is a great source of information for journalists. If they do their research, they can probably limit the amount of mistakes made by the not so accurate reports out there. Problem is, just like you and me, they want their story to hit the web and the papers ASAP, so there’s not always time for the amount of research they’d like to do.
It’s a fine line to tread for the journalist, and the publisher. What they need to do when social websites like Twitter, Facebook and whatnot, as well as with traditional blogs, is make sure they let the readers know the source and keep their distance to it. Just like with traditional research, you’ll have to keep an open and critical mind to everything you’re told and you learn along the route. Is there an agenda? Does the person giving the information benefit from this or that? Is this a PR hoax?
Twitter and social media will be an important source for hunting down stories for journalists for years to come. One BBC debacle won’t change that.