RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One thing people seem to like a lot these days is Twitter. Twitter, for the uninitiated, is a social media site that began with the idea that people could stay connected by tweeting each other with short answers to a simple question: what are you doing? And while it may have been a bit frivolous at first, Twitter is increasingly being used by companies as a marketing tool, and for many it's become a source of news.
NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.
WENDY KAUFMAN: Some people, including Hanson Hosein, get much of their breaking news from tweets — Twitter messages of 140 characters or less that dance across his computer screen.
Mr. HANSON HOSEIN: I know if something really crazy happens in the world or something really interesting happens in my world — which is technology and communication — someone's going to pick it up pretty quickly and let us all know about it.
KAUFMAN: Hosein, a digital media expert at the University of Washington, follows about 250 people on Twitter and receives everything they post on Twitter's Web site.
The Silicon Valley startup doesn't have any reporters or photographers; rather, anyone and everyone who sees or hears just about anything can post it online.
Mr. HOSEIN: So, right now, I'm just tweeting. Wendy Kaufman from NPR is in my office, wants to find out more about how breaking news works in social media.
KAUFMAN: Okay. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff. But suppose, Hosein says, you were on a ferry in the Hudson River on January 15, when the US Airways jet ditched in the water?
Mr. HOSEIN: There were people there with their cell phones who could report on this. Not necessarily professional journalists, but they're there, and that makes all the difference.
KAUFMAN: Within minutes of the plane going down, an eyewitness snapped a photo and put it up on Twitter.
Mr. HOSEIN: So, that's the million-dollar shot — that's the money shot.
KAUFMAN: It's a spectacular photo too.
Mr. HOSEIN: It really is. He's on the ferry, and he shot that. There's a plane in the Hudson, and I'm on a ferry going to pick up people. Crazy.
KAUFMAN: That and other Twitter messages were forwarded around the globe within minutes, picked up by, among others, traditional journalists who used that information as a starting point for their own reporting.
Similarly, traditional reporters sometimes take cues and get breaking news from the free, online Wikipedia. Just about anyone can write and edit it. That explains, for example, how John Updike's death could be noted on the author's Wiki page even before NPR could confirm that he had died.
The big question: can you trust the news you get from social media?
Mr. AL TOMPKINS (Online Expert, Poynter Institute): You know, just because a person says it, and says it online or says it on a Twitter page, does not make it true — not even close.
Al Tompkins is an online expert at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center. Professional reporters, he notes, have an obligation to verify information before they publish or broadcast it. But, he says, too many individuals who post to the Web have turned that tradition on its head. Reporting first and verifying later — if at all.
Mr. TOMPKINS: The enemy of truth is speed. And in our business, in journalism, we're always fighting that friction, aren't we?
KAUFMAN: He says reporting the Web often has too little concern for the truth and verification. So, the challenge for all of us is to figure out what's real and what is not to be believed.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: At our Web site, you can see a video of our own Daniel Schorr learning the ways of the Twitterverse. If you'd like to communicate with MORNING EDITION via Twitter, you can send a message to NPRMorningProd. That's NPR Morning P-R-O-D.
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