Anyone visiting the Daily Mail website this morning will have been greeted by a headline similar to that of their printed edition:
Unfortunately, last night the Newsnight Twitter feed begged to differ:
Contrary to the current twitterstorm, Newsnight can confirm Peter Rippon has NOT quit his job. Night everyone.
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) October 21, 2012
This is becoming something of a problem for news organisations. Twitter seems to have a head-start on every story, so it’s natural for journalists to try and pick-up leads from it. Twitter is also a good source for a vast number of false stories, rumours, gossip, and general mischief.
I have no doubt that separating fact and fiction on Twitter is incredibly difficult, but the error is likely to create new problems. Assuming the official Newsnight tweet is correct, the Mail will almost certainly have to publish a correction – quite possibly a small paragraph at the bottom of a page. Undoing the damage caused by an incorrect headline is considerably more difficult than determining the veracity of a tweet, as many people will assume the statement is true without looking at detailed corrections the following day.
All this assumes that the Newsnight tweet is indeed accurate, but it is worth noting that there is no mention of Peter Rippon’s resignation on the BBC News site, despite their extensive coverage of the Saville complaints. The contradiction suggests that somebody somewhere will have to correct themselves, but it is unclear how they will do so or how clearly the statement could be retracted.
UPDATE: And sure enough, Peter Rippon has now stepped aside, proving the Mail correct. I’ll leave the above intact anyway – I should have given much more credit to the Mail for sourcing things properly. Apologies.
The more general point about Twitter still stands: it is very easy for a story to spin completely out of control. If anything, Newsnight’s own tweet denying the story is evidence of this, as I’m not the only one who presumed the Newsnight denial was the correct version of events.