Twitter users generate a half billion tweets per day. Facebook’s one billion-plus members share nearly five billion items per day.
“Why do we need what Sarah Palin calls the ‘lamestream media?’” CNN executive Richard Griffiths asked Monday. “We’re the ones who still pick up the phone and jump on the plane to see if something’s true.”
Traditional media organizations such as CNN provide context to the day’s events and they work to verify stories carried on social media sites, said Griffiths, who spoke at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla.
“I don’t see Facebook or Twitter deploying experienced news crews to Crimea or Aleppo,” said Griffiths, the keynote speaker at Communication Week, hosted by the college’s Communication Department.
Anyone with a smart phone can make claims about what’s real or not, he said. In December 2010, for instance, a little-known rap musician going by @originalcjizzle posted the following:
RT @CNN: Breaking News: actor Morgan Freeman has passed away in his Burbank home<< wow legendary actor #RIPmorganfreeman.
The rapper claimed that CNN was the source of the story, which surprised executives at the network.
“The national desk didn’t know about it,” said Griffiths, who is a vice president and senior editorial director at CNN. In fact, no one at the company had ever heard of such a thing.
CNN contacted Freeman’s publicist, who said the actor’s death was “considerably exaggerated.”
CNN quickly released a statement saying it never reported the story. The rapper later said his tweet was “an inside joke between friends.”
Social media helps mainstream media sort out the truth from fiction, Griffiths said.
He credits Facebook, Twitter and other sites with helping CNN boost accountability, “keep its nose clean” and ensure that its reports are accurate.
Social media generates significant web traffic for the network. In January and February alone, social media sites sent 57 million unique users to CNN, Griffiths said.
“Social media actually helps mainstream media.”
He said CNN has partnered with Twitter and a company called Dataminr, to turn Twitter traffic into actionable news alerts.
Dataminr “goes deep into the Twitter Firehose,” as the stream of Twitter stream is called, and finds “the first glimmers of a news story,” Griffiths said.
So when a passenger said there was a bomb on board a plane over Turkey and he wanted the aircraft diverted to Sochi during the Winter Olympics, Dataminr sent CNN an alert.
CNN got the story first, beating the competition by 40 minutes, Griffiths said.
Dataminr can also help CNN distinguish real news and trends from viral tweets that may be hoaxes.
CNN’s collaboration with Twitter and Dataminr is in its “beta stage,” Griffiths said. Using a music analogy, he said, they’re beyond “Chopsticks” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” but “still a long way from Brahms concerto.”
A student asked Griffiths if CNN felt the need to dumb down the news.
No, he replied. CNN wants to attract “smart people,” the same kind of audience that listens to National Public Radio.
Griffiths conceded that videos of “waterskiing squirrels, cats doing funny things and snakes eating alligators” are capable of generating tremendous spurts of viral traffic. But he said CNN can’t sustain itself with that kind of content. It’s part of the mix, he said, but the network must also set an agenda, investigate stories of news value and raise questions about society and government.
Communication Week at Flagler College ends Thursday.