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Saturday, June 12, 2010

How I won and lost a global scoop

The Internet editing work at the Jerusalem Post is shift work and once a week, most weeks, I have to do a night shift.
I volunteered for the Friday night shift which struck me as the least disruptive to my life though I am now having second thoughts about it.  
On Friday I drove to Jerusalem and when I arrived was told that a ship called the 'Rachel Corrie' was due to try and break the blockade on Gaza the following morning.   We were still in the midst of the international crisis brought on by the unfortunate effort to seize a Turkish ship by lowering commandos on ropes which had first led to commandos being captured by the Turks and then to nine Turks being killed as other commandos rushed to rescue them.  At least that's what I think happened. 
Apart from a security guard, I was the only person in the Jerusalem Post building and keeping the site going alone.
Part of the internet editing job is checking the "talkbacks", the comments readers leave on articles and one side effect of the raid on the Turkish ship was a huge rise in the number of talkbacks.  When I arrived there were over a thousand which needed to be checked to see if they contained racism, slander, libel, rude words or any of a list of reasons for disallowing them.
Most of the comments on the Jerusalem Post's website are not of a very high calibre. Some of the authors you learn to recognize as 'regulars'.  There is one man who routinely calls Israelis Nazis and who I delete on sight, there is another who writes very long comments which are usually just acceptable: the problem being that you have to read all the way through her long and irritating comments to establish if she is indeed making acceptable remarks.  Others get into arguments which sometimes include trading insults (I delete these).
Other than that not much happens in Israel on Friday night so there is little news. 

The main items I put up were that the 'Rachel Corrie' had changed course and was trying to reach Gaza by sailing along the coast from Egypt.
The ship was flying an Irish flag so the Irish government tried to negotiate a deal, and agreed with Israel that they could unload their equipment at Ashdod, and then have it shipped into Gaza by Israel, with observers monitoring everything along the way.  The people on the ship rejected the deal but made a counter offer at about 4 am: a Malaysian NGO announced they were prepared to allow the UN to check the cargo. 
I checked the Malaysian website.  It emerged that a Malaysian NGO was co-sponsoring the ship and the ship was also flying a Malaysian flag and carrying Malaysians on board. The Malaysian site had a "twitter feed" from the ship so I started monitoring it.

Twitter is a website that allows people to send SMS messages from mobile phones which are then displayed on the Internet.  You can, of course, also get them sent to your mobile phone. Twitter achieved fame during the massive terror attack in Mumbai when people who were trapped in their hotel rooms, with terrorists outside, found they could communicate with the outside world via Twitter, so it was possible to follow the terror attack "live" by reading their 'Twitter feeds'.

At 5 am I checked the Malaysian site and found the Twitter feed from the ship was saying their radar was jammed and Israeli ships were trailing them.  I put it on the website as a news item.

At 5:30 am the twitter feed announced that the Israelis had boarded and that everybody was safe and unharmed.

At this point the twitter feed suddenly disappeared from the Malaysian site. So I checked the twitter website where I found the feed.  I posted the news on the Jerusalem Post's website as a huge breaking news item.  Feeling pleased I high-fived myself and then went to the toilet.

When I returned Twitter had exploded with items saying "Jerusalem Post says Rachel Corrie taken!".  I could no longer find anything on Twitter related to the Rachel Corrie which wasn't reporting what I had written.   Meanwhile the Malaysians were saying that the twitter information was unconfirmed and had removed it from their site.

I hastily added that my report was unconfirmed. Across the globe news agencies were saying that "there are unconfirmed reports that the Rachel Corrie has been boarded, but this is not the case, the ship is being trailed by three Israeli warships".    On the other hand the "Free Gaza" website who were issuing press releases on behalf of the blockade-breakers also announced "Rachel Corrie taken".   By that time it was 7 am and my shift was over.

I told my replacement what was going on.  He nodded grimly and made a comment about beginner's errors and I Ieft the building to drive home.

As far as I can tell the Rachel Corrie was in fact surrounded by three Israeli warships which sailed alongside it for several hours and eventually, Israeli soldiers climbed on board, after reaching an agreement with the people on the ship to do so peacefully.

My main lesson from all this was not to trust Twitter as a news source and not to trust NGOs as a news source: especially the anti-Israeli ones.
http://www.jpost.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=177525

http://www.jpost.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=177515

http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=177477