#ET702 and the Birth of Real-Time Journalism

If we needed more evidence of the speed and reach of Twitter as a news medium, the news and unfolding story on Twitter of Ethiopian Flight ET702 should confirm that our world is never going to be the same again.   As is so often the case these days, the story about the story – at least when that story involves the rising influence of social media, is one that pits the tortoise (traditional media) against the hare (Twitter and social media).  Indeed, the Storify timeline from Africa Review describes its re-cap as:

The puzzling story of the #ET702 hijacking as it unfolded on social media, before other news outlets caught on.

These stories seem to paint Twitter as a behemoth news organization, crushing the old guard with endless battalions of citizen reporters.  But let’s take a closer look.

The Twitter account holder who is credited with breaking the story is John Walton, aka @thatjohn, a self-described “aviation journo” who contributes to a number of aviation publications and was formerly deputy editor for  Australian Business Traveller and contributing editor at Condé Nast’s JauntedHe’s not currently on the masthead there, but he was described as the publication’s “roaming correspondent” in an Aug 28, 2012 story reported from Tallin, Estonia.  I mention these credentials to make a singular point:  John Walton is a journalist.  Which is to say that a journalist, not Twitter, broke the story of ET702 last night.  And he did it on Twitter.

John Walton ET702 Tweet

He used Twitter as a medium for publication and distribution, presumably because it was immediate and direct to his audience.  It was fast, and he could trust that he’d be heard by at least some of the 3,000+ people who follow him.

The news today that Twitter broke the story is just not accurate.  John Walton broke the story.  He used Twitter to do it.

Perhaps it is the current practice of instant (if short-lived) self-reflection (some might say self-congratulations), but I keep coming back to my lessons on the history of film and television and the transformational impact these media had on the distribution of news and on the collective understanding. This story, published in TV Guide on January 25, 1964, pinpoints 1:40 EST on November 22, 1963 as the  moment when the tectonic plates of news journalism shifted under the pressure of electronic media.  At that moment, “the first news bulletin cut through the sticky story line of a soap opera called As the World Turns, at exactly 1:40 (EST) on Friday afternoon, the world of communications – if not the world – was to be a vastly different sort of place, never to be quite the same again.”

Since that moment, plenty of historians, journalists, and everyday Americans have relived that moment, although I suspect at the time few were focused on the impact that news breaking on television would have on print journalism. In my research, I’ve yet to find a day-after story that says “Television scoops print.”

It did, of course, Walter Cronkite is most famous for his emotional announcement that President Kennedy was dead. Others – Ed Silverman and Ron Cochran of ABC; Bill Ryan, Chet Huntley and Frank McGee of NBC; and, along with Cronkite, Charles Collingwood of CBS – had a part in transforming the way news is was broken.

Just as John Walton – and plenty of others before him in recent years – are changing the way that news is broken: by finding the fastest route between information and audience.  Plenty of non-journalists are jumping on the bandwagon as well, and that’s likely only going to be good for excellent journalism as more sources bring themselves to light more quickly.

John’s Twitter account of the ET702 hijacking is important, not because it broke on Twitter, but because he is an excellent and knowledgeable aviation journalist. In 140 characters and a supporting Twitpic at a time, he reported in real-time.  That’s what is most important – and perhaps historic – about this story: that a journalist turned to Twitter as the fastest way to deliver news that he, using his reporting and  investigative skills, uncovered and that he continued to use Twitter to build, source, report, and correct the story as it was happening.

Twitter didn’t churn out great coverage; John Walton did, in one of the first and perhaps now best example of real-time journalism.

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