@BPGlobalPR "Twitter-Gate" Shows That Even Digital Tools Have Rules

Even the niftiest digital tools still have rules if you're a professional reporter. And one of those rules is: tweets and retweets are often raw footage and need fact-checking.
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You probably missed it, but journalism died early last week. Again.

The latest obit was written by SF MuniFail blogger and design director Mike Monteiro. He was complaining about a CNET story from reporter Caroline McCarthy in which she outed Mike as the brilliantly satirical mystery tweeter, BPGlobalPR.

Only he isn't. McCarthy was wrong thanks to journalistic over-reliance on tweets and their evil offspring, retweets.

Monteiro could have been falsely accused of something worse. Every disaster needs a biting comic genius; the bigger the catastrophe, the more inspired the wit. BPGlobalPR is a truly funny send-up of the real, stumbling BP.

But instead of an interesting revelation, McCarthy's story turned into a blunt reminder that even the niftiest digital tools still have rules if you're a professional reporter. And one of those rules is: tweets and retweets are often raw footage and need fact-checking.

McCarthy had the poor taste to write her piece based on a retweet by Wired Magazine of a tweet from prolific Wired journalist Mat Honan unmasking his pal Monteiro as the Zorro-like BPGlobalPR. That's a lot of Twitter litter for one story.

"@Mike-FTW inked deal to publish book of his @BPGlobalPR tweets," Honan tweeted. Only he was joking. Monteiro wasn't BPGlobalPR. And McCarthy never contacted either guy to check it out before she pressed "send" on her story.

This is not the end of the world. Monteiro was accused of being a comic sensation and McCarthy made more confessions and apologies for her "one-time" error than Mark Sanford.

Most of us in the profession have been whacked on the knuckles a few times for failing to do enough checking. I almost went to press once with a great story about an international assassination plot involving world leaders and about six countries. Then I made a pesky last check and found out the whole thing sprang from the fertile imagination of a rural gunsmith from Arizona. If I'd been swimming in the ocean of social media back then, where real-time is prime time and sharing is easy, I might have released the fiction instead of the facts.

It's that fallibility thing journalists are so touchy about.

Still, for a few hours, the BPGlobalPR flap was an ugly Twitter pile-up on a journalistic two-lane black top with shards of hot metal and singed reputation strewn all over the highway.

The kindest description of it was a little cyber-bullying mixed with hissy fits that involved bright people but read like a middle school cafeteria brawl.

Monteiro showered McCarthy with taunts, calling her a "cornered paper tiger" who was "careless with people's lives and words," a "shame to the craft" and a "princess." Her irresponsible story was, yes, here it comes, "the death of journalism." Honan's words weren't as harsh, but he did shout his tweets in all caps: "WHEN SOMEONE EXPLICITLY SAYS IT'S A JOKE IT IS PROBABLY A JOKE."

Monteiro also threatened to photoshop McCarthy's head on one of the naked background bodies on his NSFW blog. Numerous other tweeters joined in, accusing her of "professional suicide" and worse.

Stuck in the internet stockade for everyone to see, McCarthy tried to be breezy - maybe too breezy, suggesting everyone should "chill" and "go for a beer." But she also apologized more times than Mark Sanford. "I was sloppy, I admit it," she tweeted. "I know I'm not the only journalist to have made this one time error." She said she was sorry about "being snotty," suggested people donate $10 to the Gulf relief effort instead of focusing on her weaknesses and asked, "what more do you want from me?"

What I want is a moral to the story and here it is:

Retweeting can be dangerous. It's a great tool for mass communication, but watch out for the consequences.

At first I thought this was another cautionary tale about digital speed killing accuracy. But it's not. A journalist didn't check her sources; they got mad. Period.

This is the same standard it's always been: verify information or you're a rumormonger (which can also be fun and more profitable than journalism). I re-learn the value of that lesson at least once a week.

I also continue to marvel at the miracles of Twitter and other tools.

Now, for instance, we can be real-time public voyeurs in a bitchfest that used take place in the quiet confessional between a reporter and her editor. That's good for democracy.

Who doesn't like to watch?

But then there's what website Jezebel.com calls "crowdsourcing revenge." Rap star M.I.A. tweeted to her over 100,000 followers the phone number of a New York Times reporter whose story about her she didn't like. And Above the Law blogger Kashmir Hill had her personal info posted on Craigslist, the adult section, by a disgruntled subject of a piece she wrote.

People have always been mad at journalists, writes Jezebel's Anna North. "But now it's easier than ever to turn rage into a full voicemail box."

Social media can and does cut both ways, either as a great cultural revelation or an avenging and angry mob. Be careful what you write and be particularly careful about what writing you retweet.

Now let's all chill and go have a beer.

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