Harry Truman got a good laugh from the infamous and inaccurate Chicago Tribune headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” in 1948, but journalistic jumps to conclusions in the Digital Age are no laughing matter.
Twitter, Facebook and blogs have become useful breaking news and giving issues in-depth attention. The first image of the “Miracle on the Hudson” appeared on Twitter with a ferry passenger’s photo. Bloggers forced CBS to admit “substantial questions regarding the authenticity” of the 60 Minutes story questioning President George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service, ultimately ousting ending veteran newsman Dan Rather.
While the International News Service slogan used to be “Get It First, But First Get It Right”, several recent high-profile examples of sloppy reporting show this has gone by the wayside, showing that social media also has a downside:
- NPR tweeted that Representative Gabrielle Giffords had died after being shot, causing anguish for family members.
- CNN and Fox News initially convinced President Obama his health care law had been partially overturned by the the Supreme Court.
- Multiple news sources scoured Facebook and reported Ryan Lanza, not his brother Adam, was the Newtown shooter causing him to take to Facebook, posting “IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME”.
These mistakes should have been a wakeup call, but the tragedy in Boston proves otherwise.
Rumors spread on Twitter and Reddit that a missing Brown University student was a suspect, further spread by Politico and Newsweek reporters. CNET’s Molly Wood cites many more examples of how the rush to be first outpaced the prudence of being right. While “circulating official ‘have you seen this person’ images…online is orders of magnitude more effective than the old days”, Wood asserts that currently social media is “making news worse”.
We all share responsibility during breaking news to prevent the spread of bad information as well as an opportunity to help.
Take a break. Turn off scheduled Facebook posts and tweets, and restrain yourself from posting during a developing story. Emotions can make it hard to be an observer, but by doing nothing you’re actually doing something by preventing the spread of unverified information.
“Just the facts ma’am”. Let those directly involved such as official feeds or actual eyewitnesses do the talking by sharing and retweeting. In the aftermath of the attack, Boston Police Department issued public safety warnings and details about the suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with thousands of retweets. When Hurricane Sandy made landfall, FEMA reached more than 300,000 people on Facebook (25 times their daily average) and 6 million with a single tweet thanks to retweets. More than 500,000 people visited Ready.gov and following the storm social media drove visitors to a Sandy-specific Facebook page, Twitter handle and landing page became a clearinghouse for recovery information.