It’s hard avoiding the irony that a discussion on last Tuesday’s episode of What’s Trending about the perils of impulsive, unconfirmed tweeting can have serious consequences. The story centered around two residents of Veracruz, Mexico facing up to 30 years in prison for their tweets about an alleged drug gang attack on a primary school, in what some had called a case of “Twitter Terrorism.”
I was even a guest correspondent on that episode, filling in for Melissa Jun Rowley on Shira Lazar’s six month-old weekly online news show, and the conversation circled around vetting news before reactively re-tweeting it.
Then on Friday afternoon, the show’s offical @WhatsTrending Twitter account posted a tweet reporting that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs had died. The tweet, though quickly removed within minutes, spread rapidly around Twitter and into the blogosphere, with many citing CBS News as the official source of the false report, given that What’s Trending aired on CBSNews.com.
By Saturday, CBS News summarily cancelled its relationship with What’s Trending and removed it entirely from the CBSNews.com site, with all previous links re-routed for the time being to the show’s Facebook page. The producers of the show, Lazar and Damon Berger, issued a brief apology on Twitter and on Facebook, but those didn’t stop CBS News execs from their decision to part ways.
Today the show continued, albeit without its primary distributor, with a live broadcast from its Hollywood studio starting off with a more thorough apology to being the show. In it Lazar reference the errant tweeter as a “junior staffer,” but acknowledged that ultimately the show was responsible for its actions.
Lazar’s opening statement today:
Last Friday, a miscommunication in the newsroom resulted in a junior staffer at What’s Trending sending a tweet that contained an unchecked, unconfirmed and ultimately untrue report about Steve Jobs. The tweet was retracted in less than a minute and a hastily written apology was written by us and our distributor, followed a bit later by a more formal apology. Unfortunately, by then the original tweet had already made its way around the internet, and who did it or how it happened no longer mattered.
We love Steve Jobs, he is an inspiration to us at What’s Trending, and his work influences our entire company on a daily basis. We are immeasurably sorry for what happened and we apologize unreservedly to him, his family, his friends, his fans and anyone else who was or is affected by our actions last week. We also want to apologize to CBS News and AT&T for any negative attention this has caused.
While mistakes do happen this mistake was a particularly terrible and unfortunate one that has left our organization humbled and deeply apologetic. We look forward to getting back to business this week, to follow the high standards of journalism to insure this never happens again, and to continue delivering thoughtful, verified and substantiated news on the topics important to all of us.
The producers of the show insist that the show will continue to broadcast weekly and are working out additional distribution options. Today the episode went live on Ustream and Livestream, with guests Chris Hardwick, Paul Scheer, Terrell Owens and rapper Kendrick Lamar.
Without the CBSNews.com site, the show will work to drive viewers to its newly launched whatstrending.com site. The show’s primary sponsor was AT&T, and it’s not clear whether the sponsor is remaining on board at this point. It’s logo is missing from the new site, and was scrubbed from the opening graphics on today’s show. The producers aren’t commenting on the fate of the sponsorship.
Arguably this was a tough story to watch unfold, given my proximity to the show as a guest correspondent last week. But what it illustrates are the high stakes that come with top-tier distribution and sponsorship deals. With all the talk of creative freedom online, when major partners are involved, the stakes are high and the room for error is minimal.
Was the tweet a mistake? Absolutely. And for a venerable news org like CBS News, the tolerance for misreporting, particularly something as significant as the Apple icon’s death is zero. The show itself is still groundbreaking, and arguably the most polished half-hour live show on the internet right now. It brings intelligent people together to talk about top news stories in an informative way. Bias aside, I’d for one like to see this show continue, and signs seem to indicate it will.