It wasn’t hard to see why.
In the early hours of the Newtown shooting in December, news outlets reported the wrong man as the suspect and wrongly reported the suspect’s father as dead. They also reported a host of other things that turned out not to be true. Nearly all of the false reports began on television, but every one of them spread far and wide on social media.
The Dorner manhunt saw a repeat. Even as the cabin in which Dorner made his last stand was fully engulfed in flames, television reported a body, positively identified as Dorner, had been recovered from the structure. The report was tweeted and retweeted quickly, as every news organization “confirmed” what turned out to be incorrect information.
Cue the wrath of “old media” directed at the “new media” online. While I can’t deny that Twitter, Facebook and the like spread that misinformation far quicker than it could have been spread, say, 10 years ago, the problem isn’t with the technology. The problem is that too many journalists have all but abandoned the standards of good reporting.
In their rush to be first, to get the scoop, reporters have forgotten the second part of the dictum, “Get it fast, but get it right.” Everybody wants to be first, but in breaking news situations like these two, the scoop is likely to be early conjecture or even outright wishful thinking on the part of some official who isn’t even that closely connected with the story.
Maybe the fact that anybody with a smart phone could tweet out a detail that turns out to be the critical piece of the story does fuel some of this mad dash to put out any information without much investigation behind it. But again, that’s not the fault of technology. It’s just weak reporting.
At Storyful, we apply the same techniques to social media and social media sources that we would apply to any piece of information, starting with: “Does it make sense?” Although an unnamed Los Angeles Police official was the source of the claim that Christopher Dorner’s body had been pulled out of the cabin, that just didn’t make sense. The cabin was on fire, as seen on live TV. On the police scanner, officers said they would not be going in until the fire department gave the all clear. Plus, LAPD was not on the scene — San Bernardino County was.
With that in mind, here are a few tips to being a better social media journalist.
- Question everything. Don’t let someone else do your reporting for you. Many moons ago, in the early days of news organizations having web sites, I got into a heap of trouble because I published something onto the site that our own reporters had just said on television. It was wrong, dead wrong.
- Apply the smell test. If that piece of information stinks (i.e., makes no sense), it’s probably no good, no matter who gave it to you.
- Stop relying on anonymous sources. Unless the source is likely to be killed, he or she doesn’t need to be anonymous. “Because I’m not authorized to talk about it” is not a good reason to be anonymous. If the source isn’t authorized, the information may not be either.
- Don’t confuse wishful thinking for truth. In the Dorner case, all those police officials sure hoped Dorner was dead in that cabin, and they may have even been fairly sure he was. But they had no way of knowing if there was a body until it was safe to get in there. And after that, identification takes time too, depending on how badly the body might be burned.
- Along the same lines, remember that everybody has an agenda. Even other journalists.
- Think. Apply common sense. Take notes, ask the same question over and over if you have to, and ask it of multiple people. Remember that the folks you’re talking with, unless they are on the scene, may well be doing nothing more than repeating what’s been said on the news. That goes double for political officials. The congressman doesn’t have a direct line to the command station. It goes triple for what you see on your timeline. Between those timelines and 24/7 news networks, it’s just one big echo chamber and not at all easy to distinguish the news from the noise.
Some of us belong to an organization called the Society of Professional Journalists, which has a very specific code of ethics. Its main headings are these: Seek truth and report it. Minimize harm. Act independently. Be accountable.
Responsible journalism, good journalism — whether “traditional” or “new” — requires all four of those tenets in equal parts. It’s not enough to pass along unconfirmed information, attributed to someone else, or even “confirmed” information that doesn’t pass the smell test.
And it’s not a battle between traditional media and social media. It’s a balance, tempered by good journalism.
This post originally appeared at Storyful.