In Response to Michael Wolff and The Guardian

Is Wolff's article about my work an accurate reflection of what I do online? Judge for yourself.

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  1. As many of you know by know, The Guardian's Comment Is Free section posted an article by media critic Michael Wolff regarding how I used Twitter cover the massacre of students and teachers in Newtown, CT. There's been a lot of debate over the contents of the article, as well as over my tweets. Since The Guardian didn't offer me a chance to comment or reply, I thought the best thing to do was to re-read all my tweets then go through his entire article and reply as best I can, paragraph by paragraph. 
    Just to keep things as clear as possible the text from the article will be in italics, and I'll reply in bold. And rather than cherry pick from the article, I'm including the full text. Also, please forgive the lack of spaces between some paragraphs. For some reason, it keeps doing that.
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    If it bleeds, it leads – that most reliable axiom of journalism – may be nowhere as true as on Twitter. War, natural disasters, sudden violence, and their confusion, certainly get an immediate, spontaneous, and vivid expression in a tweet roll.


  2. I've got no argument there. That's been the reality of the news business for a long time, for better or worse. And it's almost guaranteed that there will be a reaction to it on Twitter, whether because people are eyewitnesses, interested in the story or emotionally moved by it.

    Andy Carvin, a social media promoter, gained lots of attention for himself, and for Twitter's usefulness in fraught circumstances, during the successive convulsions of the Arab spring. It was largely his focus on personal stories, on individual pain and terror, that made his obsessive tweeting compelling, and that form the basis of his just-published book, Distant Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution. "Unflinching, real-time depiction of conflict" is Carvin's metier, according to the book's press notes:


    "[Carvin] is reinventing how people experience the news. No longer merely consuming it, they participate in it, interacting with the very people on the ground engaged in the uprisings."

    I'm not sure what you mean by a social media promoter. I use social media a lot, because my day job is to experiment with new tools to see if they can improve the quality and diversity of our reporting. If anything, I'm a promoter of NPR and the importance of public media in our society. Social media is just an aspect of it.
    I did get a lot of attention during the Arab Spring. I certainly appreciated seeing reporters at news organizations I respect, like the Guardian, praise my work; it was both humbling and flattering. Sometimes the coverage was a bit overblown, but I think that's part of a broader tendency in journalism to navel-gaze about the role of social media in journalism. 

    "Obsessive tweeting." Yeah, I think that's a fair statement. As I got more into the story of the Arab Spring, I felt it became my calling to bear witness as best I could. So I won't argue with that description.

    Yep, I have a new book coming out. Thanks for mentioning it! The folks at CUNY's School Of Journalism were kind enough to publish it for me. I'd be happy to send you a copy if you'd like. And that's indeed a quote from the press materials, so once again, thanks for referencing it. 


    Late last week, Carvin applied his you-are-there, or I-am-there-in-spirit, tweeting approach to the school shooting in Connecticut, not just noting each raw increment of the unfolding story, but adjudicating on, and frequently scolding, the rest of the media's confused accounts. 


    "Frequently scolding" is an interesting way of put it. I tweeted around 350 times through that afternoon - you can access an archive of them here - and by my count, I criticized the media just a handful of times. Here are the examples I was able to find, all of which came around 4pm local time, after there had been so much confusion in everyone's reporting:
  3. Apart from those, I don't see other examples, though it's entirely possible I missed some here or there. If I missed any, please feel free to share them in the comments. Otherwise, I'll let people decide for themselves whether that many tweets out of more than 300 of them that day count as "frequent."
    From a remote control booth, Carvin uses Twitter as a field walkie-talkie calling out to others, and then centralizing their reports. In theory, he's harnessing the eyes and ears of people actually on the ground, in sight of the carnage, and, as it were, disintermediating the outside cameras and hacks yet to arrived – or who might not ever arrive (aka parachuting reporters).

    It depends on the circumstances, of course, but generally this sounds about right.

    This is "crowdsourcing", that new notion of information collection and retrieval that has become a cliche even before its actual process has been much tested or entirely defined. 


    While crowdsourcing is a new term, the concept is quite old. In the late 17th century, the first independent broadsheet in the US - Publick Occurences - left its fourth page blank so readers could jot down noteworthy info before leaving it at the pub for the next reader. During the US civil war, Confederate newspapers asked their readers for help cracking coded Union telegrams. About 40 years ago, the same thing happened when the San Francisco Chronicle asked for help deciphering a code by the Zodiac Killer. A high school teacher and his wife managed to do it over the course of the weekend. Meanwhile, there's crowdsourced meteorology and traffic reporting (weather and traffic spotters), opinion crowdsourcing (letters to the editor), and many other examples. Crowdsourcing is as old as the news business in the US. It's just a new word for these activities.


    Carvin is certainly a bona fide practitioner of a new form of journalism, inventing a role for himself that seems as native as the network anchorman became to television in the 1960s. (Carvin even has his own signature signoff before he stops tweeting for the night: "Stay safe, everyone.")


    I use the anchor metaphor as well, too - and I take that as a compliment. It's not a perfect metaphor, but it's better than a lot of others I've heard. As for my signoff, I began using it while my sources were getting shot at in Libya and Bahrain, and kept it up for much of the last two years. Probably more than the average Twitter user, a number of my followers face life-and-death challenges on a daily basis given their roles in these revolutions, or their roles reporting on them. I think each one of them has earned that acknowledgment from me.

    This successfully assumed identity... 


    Not sure what makes it "assumed," since I clearly identify myself, but anyway....


    ...seems to have compelled his employer, NPR, quite a traditional news organization, to have acknowledged his special standing with the awkward title, "senior product manager for online communities". 


    You're five years behind; I haven't had that title since 2008. When I first came to NPR in 2006, staff focusing on social media-based reporting was a new idea. Not sure where to place me in the organization, they decided to put me in charge of NPR's online communities - which in the parlance of our org chart is called a senior product manager. Awkward? Sure. But because of the nature of my work? Not exactly.


    My title since 2008 is "senior strategist" - an equally strange title that we came up with jointly, once again because the type of work I do is new and doesn't fit neatly into the usual reporter-producer-editor triad. I often joke about myself as NPR's "guinea pig in-residence," because I spend most of my job experimenting with various ways to report the news and collaborate with the public. Plus, it sounds better than Senior Lab Rat.


    As it happens, and perhaps the awkwardness of his title reflects NPR's discomfort here, Carvin himself has no journalism or reporting experience. 


    Completely incorrect. I was originally recruited in 2006 because of my work mobilizing online communities during Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami - in other words, because I wasn't a journalist. They were interested in seeing what would happen if someone like me was brought into a news organization. If they were uncomfortable, they wouldn't have recruited me in the first place. And my lack of a background in journalism was seen as a plus, as I could experiment beyond the usual confines of what's taught in journalism schools or practiced in news rooms.


    He was a not-for-profit administrator involved with digital issues, primarily how to expand public computing resources to those without, when he started to focus on computing's role in mass events – a good way to promote the importance of computers for all.


    True. I worked on a project called The Digital Divide Network from 1999 to 2006. It focused on improving Internet access and media literacy around the world.

    Carvin's interest has never been reporting, per se, or storytelling, or even, in the manner of the untrained war reporter, experiencing the reality for himself. Rather, his vocation, along with promoting social media itself, has been that new information role called "curation" – another cliche even before being adequately defined – which has somehow become an uber form of editing.


    I consider myself reporter-curious, but I've never called myself a reporter, let alone a war reporter. That's a badge of honor I leave to others on the front lines. 
    I still hesitate to call myself a journalist, but enough people have insisted on doing so that I sometimes use it, too. I do call myself a storyteller quite often, because I try to spend a lot of time on Twitter weaving together stories of people on the ground experiencing whatever happens to be happening. 
    And I don't like the term "curation" either. I use it often, but with reservations. To me, the term conveys an activity that's archival rather than live, so in some ways I think of what I do as a form of oral history-telling in real time - and like most oral histories, it takes a while to figure out what's true and what's not. I'm comfortable with that, and I'm fortunate that my employer is comfortable with it, too.

    Carvin's elevation to sacred cow and groundbreaking auteur in the new news media has strongly benefited from the digital establishment's instant and militant defense of its own, and the old media establishment's ambivalence about itself.


    First time I've heard myself described as a sacred cow. My kids love cows, so they'll be thrilled to hear that. As for "sacred," that's never seemed accurate, as I routinely spend time debating the merits of my methods with my journalism peers. Sometimes I make a good argument, sometimes I don't. By my understanding, there's nothing remotely sacred about my methods, and they should be scrutinized. As for old-media ambivalence, I've been fortunate to be covered favorably in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the BBC, the AP, and last but not least, the Guardian - twice. I'm honored by the  support and encouragement I receive from people who work in the old media establishment, including my own organization, NPR.


    Indeed, Carvin has what seems like a personal publicist in the technology writer, Matthew Ingram, who often tweets and writes about Carvin's significance, going so far as to say he ought to win a Pulitzer prize for tweeting. 


    Mathew has been very generous in his writing about me, and I truly appreciate it. Since his beat is covering new trends in journalism, I suppose it's natural that I come up every now and then. But I certainly don't seek it, nor do I consult with him at all while he's doing it, except on the few occasions he's interviewed me. 


    As for a Pulitzer prize - like that'll ever happen. I'm generally happy with my work, but that seems like a bit of a stretch. 


    Likewise, Carvin has become a constant and scornful disciplinarian of the news media that does win Pulitzer prizes – and, more often than not, is praised, courted, and quoted by that media.


    Scornful Disciplinarian? Suddenly I'm picturing myself as ruthless, emotionally repressed headmaster in a British prep school. More often, though, I picture myself as someone who's always been interested in how the media works. When news orgs do great things, I say so - just as I do when I think they've done something wrong. That includes my own employer on a number of occasions. I also always retweet criticisms of my employer when I see them; I think it's important to debate when we're getting it right and when we're getting it wrong. See Williams, Juan and Giffords, Gabrielle et al.

    When the details of the shooting first started to emerge last Friday morning, Carvin quickly moved to insert himself as the grandmaster tweeter, consolidating, parsing, weighing the other tweets in his wide purview. His talent is not just speed but centrality: he assumes a striking intimacy with the event at hand.


    Thank you.

    He quickly became bathed in Newtown's drama, proudly explaining during Friday's marathon tweeting session that CNN had called to try to get him on the air, thinking he was at the scene rather than in Washington, DC. 


    Proudly? No. I was just confused and somewhat amused by the matter. They actually thought I had children at the school; where they got that from, I have no idea.


    (He noted, from his 300-mile distance from the event: "Just called home. Never been so relieved to hear my son's voice in the background.")


    I was absolutely relieved - just as every other American parent of a young child did in the hours after the shooting. Of course there was no possible harm to him or my daughter - obviously, we're 300 miles away, as you note - but my reaction was instinctive, emotional and visceral, after having spent much of the day dwelling on the final moments of these 20 children in Newtown. 

    He also became, on Friday morning, a fevered spreader of misinformation.


    Well, we'll see how accurate that is. Let's keep reading.

    While claiming not to retweet most of what he finds, because of its questionable provenance, he nevertheless tweeted a rather broad range of bollocks. 


    I had to giggle at this. I've never had the word "bollocks" applied to me. It is such a wonderful British word. It's probably a stereotypical American response to think of the Sex Pistols when hearing it. 


    Now as to whether this is an accurate assessment of my actions....


    There was news of a mysterious purple van that does not seem actually have existed. Then there was, suddenly, a second shooter theory that got Carvin's attention. And the gunman's brother found dead. And two bodies at the mother's house. And he piled on to the fake letter moment – retweeting reports about a letter supposedly written by a child from inside the school.


    Let's unpack each of these examples for a moment.
    First, the Purple Van and the Second Shooter.

    Here are the two tweets Wolff links to in his article:
  4. Starting late that morning, law enforcement sources began to tell news outlets that a second shooter might be involved, and there was a purple/maroon van possibly involved in the incident. A report from the AP said that police had "surrounded a purple van in Danbury that may be connected to the shooting." A local newspaper, the Connecticut Post, heard similar reports from their own law enforcement sources, as seen in the tweet Wolff cited. The same question about the purple van would appear again in later AP rewrites, as can be seen when conducting this Google Search

  5. CBS, meanwhile, cited a reporter from the radio station 1010 WINS:

    "Police believe there may be a second gunman and are looking for a red or maroon van with its back window blown out, 1010 WINS' Al Jones reported. Two guns have reportedly been recovered."


    This quote appeared across CBS' various TV and radio affiliates around the country, both online and on air.


    All of these examples occurred around noon that day. A little less than an hour and a half later, I finally decided to ask my followers if they knew anything about it; this was my tweet to John Miller of CBS, as seen above.

  6. In other words, mainstream media outlets had heard reports on this van since late morning, so I asked my followers if they knew anything else about it. As it turns out, it was a dead end, but given the coverage it was getting, it was worth asking about it.
    Continuing with regard to the second shooter, as I referenced above, CBS cited 1010 WINS as their source. And if you look at my tweet regarding the maroon van, you can see John Miller of CBS reiterating this very point. The Danbury News Times, a local paper, also referenced the report of a second shooter. Then there's the AP

    "According to one official, the suspect's younger brother is being held for questioning as a possible second shooter."
    NBC weighed in as well:
  7. So, when I did tweet about a second shooter, it was just in the context of a RT of John Miller from CBS, so I could ask about that maroon/purple van that was being reported by so many news outlets.

    "The Second Body."

    Here's the tweet Wolff references:
  8. This tweet comes from journalist Michael van Poppel, who was watching the local CBS TV affiliate, WFSB-TV. I was also listening to CBS at the time and heard the same report. WFSB had been interviewing law enforcement officials all day, so the report was indeed possible. 
  9. Having said that, I also had a conversation with Michael prior to the CBS report about the possibility of more than one of the suspects' family members being dead; I just didn't know where the bodies were or if it was even true in the first place.
  10. In other words, I was trying to sort out the reporting from CBS and other news outlets like everyone else.
    "The Letter."

    According to Wolff, I retweeted "reports about a letter supposedly written by a child from inside the school."Actually, I only sent out one retweet, and here it is:
  11. I wasn't being rhetorical. As I often do, I was asking for people to figure out if it was fake. My Twitter followers, well acquainted with my methods, were more than happy to oblige. One person I regularly interact with is David Clinch of the real-time news company Storyful. By his estimates, which I retweeted, the letter was fake.
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