In defence of healthy mistrust

Does panic over a non-existent shooting in Oxford Street mean we can’t trust Twitter to tell us the

It's the kind of thing that Twitter excels at, even when it's got the wrong end of the stick. Within minutes, news of a "shooting in Oxford Street" created a huge amount of noise and a flurry of tweets. Understandably panicky Londoners told each other to stay indoors and be safe. But there was no shooting, and it was a misunderstanding that seems to have been based partly on a police training exercise and partly on a tweet about a fashion shoot.

Does that mean we can't trust Twitter to tell us what's going on? Tom Rayner, a Sky News producer, said:

The lessons from this morning's non-incident are clear: for the police, they now have to be far more careful managing and protecting information, and more proactive in quelling rumours when they emerge.

For journalists, the advent of Twitter has made the importance of checking and verifying stories even greater.

Tom's colleagues at Sky News know this all too well, having cited a joke tweet from the spoof "Daily Mail reporter" account as evidence that Vince Cable was going to resign a few weeks ago. As we now know, Cable is still very much in his job, but it goes to show that a single tweeter may not be a perfect source of information, and even a mass of panicky tweeters chirping away can lead you in the wrong direction. In the quest to be first to break the news, it's easy to see what you want to see.

On the other hand, getting information from the Twittersphere isn't necessarily a bad thing. At the height of the recent student protests, it was easy for news to focus on safe, official information from the police which gave only one side of the story, while there was a mass of contradictory information coming from inside the police kettles. Who to believe? Journalists are taught to give more weight to "official" sources like the police – or at least to know that if a police source says something untrue, you won't get in as much trouble for printing it – which can lead to a slightly skewed version of events appearing in the early stages.

Official sources aren't without their drawbacks, though, when it comes to this kind of thing. Met Police commander Bob Broadhurst told MPs that there were no plain-clothes police at the G20 protests; we now know this not to be the case. An official, trusted voice can drown out the many eyewitnesses who may have the opposing view.

Perhaps the best way to proceed is to treat official sources and anonymous tweeters with equal cynicism. At the moment, a man in a suit and tie, or a uniform, sitting behind a microphone or carving out a press release is always going to be believed more than a funny avatar and fewer than 140 characters of text. Which is understandable. But that doesn't mean we should always trust the suit and tie more; perhaps an equal amount of healthy mistrust might be appropriate.

Twitter does get it wrong sometimes, and can be misleading; but it adds to an environment in which readers find themselves constantly challenging the veracity of sources, tweets or statements, as well as comparing the official version of events to what people on the ground are saying. And that is no bad thing.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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An antibiotic-resistant superbug is silently spreading through UK hospitals

There have already been outbreaks in Manchester, London, Edinburgh, and Birmingham, but deaths are not centrally recorded. 

Lying in a hospital bed, four months pregnant, Emily Morris felt only terror. She had caught a urinary tract infection and it was resistant to common antibiotics. Doctors needed to treat it as it could harm the baby, but the only drugs that could work hadn’t been tested on pregnant women before; the risks were unknown. Overwhelmed, Emily and her husband were asked to make a decision. A few hours later, gripping each other’s arms, they decided she should be given the drugs.

In Emily’s case, the medicine worked and her son Emerson (pictured below with Emily) was born healthy. But rising antibiotic resistance means people are now suffering infections for which there is no cure. Doctors have long warned that decades of reliance on these drugs will lead to a "post-antibiotic era"– a return to time where a scratch could kill and common operations are too risky.

It sounds like hyperbole – but this is already a reality in the UK. In the last four years 25 patients have suffered infections immune to all the antibiotics Public Health England tests for in its central lab, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has discovered.

While these cases are rare, reports of a highly resistant superbug are rising, and infection control doctors are worried. Carbapenem resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE) are not only difficult to pronounce, but deadly. These are bugs that live in the human gut but can cause an infection if they get into the wrong place, like the urinary tract or a wound. They have evolved to become immune to most classes of antibiotics – so if someone does become infected, there are only a few drugs that will still work. If CRE bacteria get into the bloodstream, studies show between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of people die.

These bugs are causing huge problems in India, certain parts of Asia, the Middle East and some countries in southern Europe. Until recently, most infections were seen in people who had travelled abroad, had family members who had, or had been in a foreign hospital. The boom in cheap cosmetic surgery in India was blamed for a spate of infections in Britain.

Now, doctors are finding people who have never boarded a plane are carrying the bug. There have already been outbreaks in Manchester, London, Liverpool, Leeds, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Nottingham, Belfast, Dublin and Limerick among other areas. Patients found with CRE have to be treated in side rooms in hospital so the bacteria does not spread and harm other vulnerable patients. But in many of Britain’s Victorian-built hospitals, single rooms are in sparse supply. Deaths from CRE aren’t centrally recorded by the government - but it is thought hundreds have already died. 

Across the country, doctors are being forced to reach for older, more toxic drugs to treat these infections. The amount of colistin – called the "last hope" antibiotic as it is one of few options still effective against CRE infections - rose dramatically in English hospitals between 2014 and 2015, the Bureau has revealed. Colistin was taken off the shelves soon after it was introduced, as it can harm the kidneys and nervous system in high doses, but was reintroduced when infections became immune to standard treatment. The more we use colistin the more bacteria develop resistance to it. It’s only a matter of time before it stops working too, leaving doctors’ arsenal near-empty when it comes to the most dangerous superbug infections.

Due to a kidney problem, Emily Morris suffers repeat urinary tract infections and has to be hospitalised most months. Her son Emerson comes to visit her, understanding his mummy is ill. If she catches a superbug infection, she can still be given intravenous antibiotics to stem it. But she worries about her son. By the time he is an adult, if he gets ill, there may be no drugs left that work.

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism