Andy Carvin on Twitter as a newsroom and being human

By now, many people are familiar with the story of how NPR editor Andy Carvin used Twitter to create a kind of crowdsourced newswire during the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East last year, inventing a brand-new kind of journalism on the fly and in full public view. In a discussion with me on Thursday in Toronto about the lessons that can be learned from his experience, Carvin made some interesting points about the value of such an approach — including the importance of being transparent about the process, and the virtues of being human.

The discussion at the Mesh 2012 conference (full disclosure: I am a co-founder) touched on a number of different elements of what Carvin did during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, including two important factors that allowed him to take on the role that he did. The first was the nature of his job at NPR, which — as a senior digital strategist — allowed him to experiment with new tools and take risks. The second was the fact that he already had a number of contacts in the Middle East through his work with Global Voices and other social advocacy groups (Harvard researcher and author David Weinberger, whom I also interviewed at the conference, live-blogged the session with Carvin).

Both of these meant that Carvin was perfectly positioned to do what he did when dissidents started revolting in Tunisia, and then following that in Egypt and Libya. He also noted with a laugh that “it helps when you have ADHD” (which he does), because for several months during the height of those revolutions, he was spending almost every waking minute reading or posting on Twitter, managing several lists of dissidents and thousands of responses from followers. His peak output reached 1,400 tweets a day at one point, whereupon Twitter blocked his account as spam.

Not a newswire, but a crowdsourced newsroom of public editors

But Carvin also talked about how he approached the reporting of real-time events on Twitter, and how he doesn’t really like having what he did called a “newswire.” Instead, he says he prefers to think of it as a crowdsourced newsroom — with him as the reporter, or the anchor (or “news DJ,” another term he likes to use) pulling in reports from different places, and then relying on his followers to act as editors and sources, fact-checking and verifying and also distributing the news that he was curating. As he put it:

I get uncomfortable when people prefer my twitter feed as a newswire. It’s not a newswire. It’s a newsroom. It’s where I’m trying to separate fact from fiction, interacting with people. That’s a newsroom.

In many cases, Carvin says, this process worked remarkably well — and quickly. In one photo of Egypt, for example, someone he asked for an opinion said that the corner of a building in the background was clearly a prominent local landmark, and then sent a link to a Google Earth view of the building, allowing Carvin to confirm within minutes that it was the same location. He also gave his followers what he called “fire drills,” in which he would ask them to fact-check photos that he knew were fake and then he would look at how many errors they found.

And what happened when he made a mistake and posted something that wasn’t accurate? In one case, he distributed a photo he thought was of a woman who had been shot in battle and was being attended to by nurses — but it turned out she was actually dead, his followers told him, and her body was being prepared for burial. Carvin says he admitted his mistake multiple times, and then retweeted both the criticisms and the corrections as broadly as possible:

You have to be prepared to be accountable in real time. When I screw up, my followers tell me.

News as a process, and the virtues of being human

The NPR editor, who is now working on a book about his experiences, says he believes in the “news as a process” approach, as author Jeff Jarvis and others have described it — in which not only is the reporting of an event crowdsourced in real time, but new information is added and mistakes are also corrected by readers, who journalism professor Jay Rosen has called “the people formerly known as the audience” (recent events have also shown how social networks like Twitter and Reddit can act as fact-checking engines).

As I tried to argue in a Twitter debate on Friday with a number of people (which Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute curated with Storify) I think there is a lot of public value in doing what Carvin did, by assembling and fact-checking and correcting information in real time. That’s not to say editors don’t have value, or that reporters shouldn’t try to report things as accurately as possible. But when errors are made, I think admitting them publicly and being seen to correct them (not something traditional media is very good at) actually builds trust.

For me — and I think for Carvin — doing this is connected to a larger principle, and that is the value of being human, and of expressing that humanity, even if it means acknowledging a mistake. The NPR editor also admitted that in some cases he was so disturbed by the videos and images he was seeing from Egypt and elsewhere that he responded on Twitter in a way that he says might not have been professional — but he still felt was justified. As Weinberger noted in his live-blog: “Andy perfectly modeled a committed journalist who remains personal, situated, transparent, and himself.”

This is the kind of thing that mainstream media outlets discourage, just as many try to avoid admitting that they have made mistakes. Restrictive social-media policies put in place by many of these outlets seem designed to remove as many of the elements of being human as possible from the practice of being a journalist — which I think is the exact opposite of what needs to happen if traditional journalism is to survive. And I think Andy Carvin is a pretty good example of what one possible future of real-time, crowdsourced journalism actually looks like.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Luc Legay and personaldemocracy