Monday, 14 September 2009

More from the junction between Twitter and bad journalism

If Uri Geller is the world's leading spoon-bender, then Derren Brown is surely its leading mind-bender; Britain's best answer to David Blaine, that doesn't end in a preposition.

Last week the spookily self-assured brain tamperer, who once took a good couple of hours of TV viewers' lives to conspicuously and lengthily fail to take his own, decided to have a go at a less bullety game of chance, the National Lottery. First he correctly predicted the numbers live on telly, simultaneously with the actual draw itself, then, later in the week followed up with an hour-long show purporting to explain how he did it.

The first I heard about this was on Twitter, ditto the somewhat dissatisfied reaction to what passed for his explanation – not least from mathematicians. But this being news (or something like it) a story was also to be found on the BBC website, under the headline “Brown Lotto trick 'confuses' fans”. Clearly it wasn't about Gordon Brown, since it contained the word fans, so I took a look and near the beginning found this sentence:

And on blogging site Twitter one fan said he was "still confused", while another called it a "massive letdown".

Later came these paragraphs:

Twitter critics of the explanation show include Markpirie, who said: "I'm still confused about what way he did it to be honest."

Awwchristy called the 38-year-old a "massive letdown" and KimGVille said: "Is it just me or was Derren Brown's explanation last night very disappointing?"

But some fans enjoyed Brown's stunt.

Michaelvjjones posted on his Twitter page that the show had been "very interesting & entertaining".

Xolani1990 added: "Derren Brown is pretty cool... I can see why people are so skeptical [sic] about him, but I think he's on to something here."

Never mind that 'skeptical' is a legitimate spelling so doesn't really need a '[sic]' next to it, what bothers me here isn't the use of Twitter as a source, but the article's apparent assumption that just a few tweets is enough to demonstrate the writer's assertion that viewers as a whole – and presumably Brown had rather more than four of them – were a bit confused and letdown by the supposed explanation of his methods.

Certainly, quoting opinions from Twitter is not too much different to conducting a vox pop – though with the added advantage of not having to actually talk to people or subtly prompt them into succinctly saying whatever it was that you wanted them to say. Nor do I have strong objections to stories quoting individual Twitterers to illustrate a wider opinion.

But here that's not quite what's going on: the opinions of a few Twitterers seem to have taken the place of the show's entire viewing public – at best it's rushed journalism, at worst lazy. FIRST, establish the claim you're making with some kind of convincing quantitative source, THEN add the colour of individual opinions.

I mean, I don't really have any doubt that there was widespread dissatisfaction, and I couldn't really care much less about the story itself, but the point is, making a bald statement then dressing it up with a few unsupported quotes from Twitter is just bad journalism.

And now, if I could find the right stories to support the following statement, I'd like to say that I've seen this done too many times already...

But I can't, so I won't.

(But I have).


Rax Lakhani said...

Hi Tim

Thanks for capturing this. It's something that's been annoying me for ages. Twitter seems to have opened a whole new world for desktop journalism which allows media to filter out a few comments and present them as public opinion.

The same was done for Facebook a year ago ("Facebook Group votes Gordon Brown has the sexiest vote in the UK" - where only 200 are in the group).

Journalists could opt to use Twitter as a legitimate research tool but instead they use it as a shortcut to obtaining selective vox pops or 140 charachter soundbites to support editorial.

Tim Warren said...

Hi Rax :) And thanks for reminding me about all those stories claiming outlandish things on the back of tiny Facebook groups - sometimes you'd check the groups later and find they weren't even entirely serious.

At least there seem to be fewer of them now... but I suppose that's probably just because Twitter's arguably the more fashionable site now, and so much easier to search and quote from.