Anatomy of a bad tweet

I’ve been conflicted all day about a news story I tweeted yesterday.

It concerns the strange condition that afflicted Los Angeles CBS reporter Serene Branson. Here it is:

My Branson tweet

The problem is, Branson may not have had a stroke at all. A Globe and Mail story later Monday suggested that Branson had not been hospitalized — in fact she was examined by paramedics and allowed to go home.

Sure, I used the weasel-word “may.” But I had speculated on someone’s health situation, which is never a good thing. However, that was just one of the things wrong with this tweet. As this post by Patrick Smith rightly points out, the Telegraph story I linked to was horribly sourced. No sources, no facts, no byline. No one should be linking to stories like this. What’s worse? I ignored guidelines for retweeting that I, myself, had authored for the Canadian Association of Journalists last year. Yikes.

How could this have happened?

I remember reacting emotionally to the ridicule being heaped on Branson online in my Twitter stream, with many tweets punctuated with the #fail hashtag, which I dislike. The judgments seemed mean-spirited. Branson has been nominated for two Emmy awards — she’s no amateur and it’s highly unlikely she just forgot what she was going to say or had a tough time spitting out her words. The situation looked like an obvious health issue. Here it is:

I did a quick search online to learn more and found the Telegraph article suggesting she had been hospitalized. Credible news organization, right? Alas.

Nearly two days after the event, we still don’t know what happened to Branson. My pride was assuaged somewhat today by Tara Parker-Pope’s blog post on the New York Times site. Parker-Pope quoted neurologist Daniel Labovitz regarding Branson’s alleged treatment:

I very strongly suspect this was a stroke or transient ischemic attack … Even if it wasn’t a stroke, you need to get it checked out. It’s a tremendous opportunity for her to talk about what stroke is and what T.I.A. is, and what to do. You don’t go home.

Still, I led with my heart, not my head on this one. It’s just one more reason we need a mechanism within Twitter to issue corrections. Craig Silverman has some excellent ideas about how to make this happen.

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