The new land in the sand in the media vs. internet wars seems to have been drawn over Twitter, particularly Twitter and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

A lot has been written, primarily by mainstream media pundits, that basically goes: yeah, Twitter is nice, but it doesn’t replace the need for real journalists. Which is as good a case as you’ll find of setting up a straw man so you can kick the hell of it.

One of the more reasonable pieces is from Rory Cellan-Jones at the BBC. It starts like this:

It has quickly become the received wisdom amongst new and old media commentators – Twitter came of age last week during the Mumbai terror attacks. It is true that the micro-blogging service did provide vast amounts of information, at breakneck speed, about a rapidly changing series of events. Here are the first messages I found on Twitter, starting at 16.47 London time, some time before the mainstream media started reporting the attacks. But I think a couple of myths have grown up about the role of Twitter in telling the story.

…and ends like this:

What Twitter has done is to provide instant information about anything that is happening near its millions of users, coupled with a brilliant way of sharing that information. What it doesn’t do is tell us what is true and what isn’t – and that makes the work of mainstream media outlets and professional reporters all the more relevant.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the back-and-forth here. I will say two things about the debate: Twitter and other web services are hardly alone in spreading confusing and sometimes wrong information in the confusion of rapidly breaking news, and it seems to me there are many more journalists arguing “you need us” than there are twitterers or bloggers arguing “we are going to replace you.”

The main thing I want to say is that I didn’t find the news from Twitter that confusing or misleading when I followed the Mumbai attacks last week. That may be because I didn’t follow the #mumbai hashtag; I stayed with the flow from the people I regularly follow, adding a few voices as the attack and response unfolded. (Hashtags are a method of tagging tweets so that they are searchable. A bunch of posts with a common hashtag can be quickly pulled together into a single stream.)

I follow a bunch of very smart people — many of them journalists — and a number of news organizations, some traditional and some not. A lot of information got passed around by those people and institutions. Doubts were raised about some of the information that was coming out. Reports that were false were corrected (some quickly, some not). Through the people I was following — and sorry, I don’t remember who it was — I discovered Ranjit George, who was tweeting from Mumbai.

What I needed the mainstream media for was the next day, when all of the information could be pulled together into a single narrative.

Three things working journalists need to grasp: (1) we need you and always will, but we don’t necessarily need you in the same ways we have in the past; (2) readers and viewers are generally more able to sort through confusing information than many in media tend to give them credit for; and (3) active readers and viewers — which includes a rapidly increasing number of people — are building networks of sources, not the handful of sources of the mass media age, that gives them a wealth of information to contrast, compare and mentally mashup.

The cool thing about that last point is this is as huge benefit to journalists, as it is to those of us who “consume” the news.

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