Let me be the first to admit that I'm afraid of Twitter. I realise the situation isn't ideal for a burgeoning journalist trying to build a career in times of social media overkill, but what can I do? There's just something about the overwhelming onslaught of information and the constant need to be quick, appropriately witty, and informative with one-liners that just doesn't come naturally to me. The events of Wednesday afternoon, as I watched my friend and fellow journalist Ahmen Khawaja being devoured online for an unfortunate gaffe she made on Twitter, only served to make things fester.
It was early in the morning when Ahmen, who works on the BBC Urdu desk at the new broadcasting house in London, apparently overheard the obituary rehearsal for reporting the death of Her Majesty and mistaking it to be true, tweeted this: "BREAKING: Queen Elizabeth is being treated at King Edward 7th Hospital in London. Statement due shortly: @BBCWorld." followed by "'Queen Elizabeth has died [sic]': @BBCWorld."
What happened next can only be described as shit hitting the fan. Within minutes, CNN Newsource, an affiliate of the US broadcaster, sent out Ahmen's claim to its 12,700 followers. Influential German tabloid Bild also sent out a tweet with the "breaking news" to their 882,000 followers - inevitably leading to rumours of the Queen's death spreading like wildfire. Even though Ahmen was quick to realise she'd made a mistake, and she, along with CNN Newsource and Bild all deleted their tweets, the damage had been done.
The situation was further complicated by the tweets that followed and confusion over what had actually just happened. As a result, the BBC was forced to issue an official apology for Ahmen's broadcast. Even Buckingham Palace felt it necessary to issue a statement denying the Queen was ill in a move that broke its normal protocol of refusing to comment on speculation about the health of the Royal Family.
Mind-numbingly embarrassing as something like this is for any journalist, it was only just the beginning of a very bad day for Ahmen, who I've personally worked with and know to be fairly thorough in her work, but who had just made an inexcusable error in judgment that challenged everything we were taught in journalism school. But people make mistakes, and Ahmen had made one too by erroneously broadcasting the death of the world's oldest and most beloved monarch. While I agree something like this would undoubtedly cause a global news alert, at the same time I don't think it's entirely unrealistic to blame what happened on a growing, unacknowledged pressure young journalists like Ahmen and I face to constantly be on top of the game - to not only be up-to-date with news as it happens but also Tweet it in real time.
And if that, without the presence of some sort of a filter between individuals and news distributors on social media isn't scary I don't know what is. Even more so when large news networks make a habit of picking time-sensitive and often unverified stories from peoples' personal accounts and using them as headlines - with crossed fingers of course. If it turns out to be true, they'll bask in the glory of having broken the news first. If not, they'll not only join the compulsive shaming brigade but will have a field day at your expense because your gaffe just helped cover their news quota for the afternoon.
Within a couple of hours, screenshots of Ahmen's erroneous tweets along with her head shot were plastered all over the Internet, calling her out for blaming the incident on a "silly prank". Every publication that could possibly have had any interest in the death of a member of the Royal Family, or looking to generate traffic on its website had run the story: a person who dares to call herself a journalist had made a mistake on social media.
And disturbingly, that was the news narrative of the afternoon and the next, when it should have been something different altogether. A couple of arbitrary tweets sent out by a young journalist who acted on impulse and then apologised almost right away were picked up by major news distributors also in their quest for breaking news. After all, who needs fact-checking when you have a random tweet from someone whose bio says they work at the BBC?
It's quite depressing when you think about it, really, that as we progress further into the information age, reporters are expected to constantly churn out news and in the process become so desperate for stories that they're not only ready to risk their integrity for likes and retweets by running with unverified information, but will then also hungrily pounce on a fellow journalists' gaffe without so much as a blink if it guarantees them a byline.
This trend isn't just instigating lazy journalism; it's dangerous. After her mistake was identified, not only did major newspapers publish Ahmen's name and face, one publication basically drew a map to where she lives and made her out to be over-privileged- just to make it easier for the social media mob to hate on her? Is this really the level journalism has been dumbed down to?
Ahmen's only offense is that she acted a bit carelessly in the quest to build her brand. The unforgiving coverage and backlash she's received since, I believe, has taken away from the real cause for concern here, which is news distributors and reporters believing that picking up tweets from journalists somehow absolves them from their own duty to double-check facts before running a story. And of course also the worrying tendency of reputable publications spewing 'facts' their reporters find on social media sites like Twitter and Reddit, slapping them with the 'news' label, and joining the cut-throat race for page views.