A couple of weeks ago I was at a hockey game with my son. During the game, as I absentmindedly checked emails on my phone, I saw a Twitter note from an alumni of the UMass program saying “Look at what this person is saying about you!” Without thinking, I clicked on the link….and instantly kicked myself for doing so, as the link spawned a Twitter spam, sending the virus to hundreds of my Twitter followers. It was the first time for me, but definitely reminded me about the power of social media. I heard from friends, colleagues and students about the spam, and ended up apologizing more than once for not following my own advice to students: Think Before You Click!
The social media dustup surrounding the early and inaccurate reports of Joe Paterno’s death once again brought to the forefront how the rapid nature of social media can lead to bad journalism. It was deja vu all over again: A year ago NPR mistakenly reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died after being shot in the head.
Why do journalists keep botching the facts on Twitter?
I posed a question along these lines on the Social Journalism Educators group on Facebook and received some of the requisite “it’s not Twitter’s fault;” and Twitter is “only” an amplification device. As much as I love most of what Matthew Ingram writes, his post on the Paterno screw-up being another example of “news as a process” worries me. Defenders of the social media realm rarely seem to want to get at why these massive ethical lapses continue to occur on Twitter. And I just won’t buy the idea that “this is the way it is” or “letting everyone know you made a mistake is great for transparent journalism.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love the many benefits of social media and I teach about its journalistic value. But I also feel that we all need to begin practicing “safe social media” practices to protect us all.
After the Giffords debacle, Alicia Shepard, the former ombudsman for NPR, wrote a column about the need for journalists to re-learn the lesson of checking sources. And she counters the shrugs inherent in many comments from social media defenders by reminding us all why it’s important to get it right, even if it’s not first: “…To report a death, incorrectly, is a serious, serious error and may have caused untold grief and pain for many who know Giffords.” Journalism is about process but the process is to get the correct information out, not to throw spaghetti against the wall, see what sticks and sort it all out later.
So, what to do?
The main issue indeed seems to rest with amplification. The nature of the Twitter beast is to retweet something you see IMMEDIATELY to your followers. I first found out about the Paterno report from a Facebook friend who teaches social media and whose insight and opinions I respect. She attributed the news to CBS — which was part of a long laundry list of news organizations that retweeted what proved to be a shaky report from Onward State, a student-run website at Penn State.
I’ve been a part of too many “not dead yet” stories so I hesitated on retweeting and re-Facebooking and went to ESPN’s site. ESPN had a story about Paterno being in grave condition, but had not jumped on the Onward State bandwagon and declared him dead. It was responsible journalism as well as an affirmation of ESPN’s social media policy prohibiting reporters and editors from breaking news on Twitter — which drew a substantial amount of criticism from the defenders of the social media realm last year. (Full Disclosure: I work as a part-time editor for ESPN.com.)
ESPN’s policy is a step in the right direction. The policy makes ESPN journalists stop and think before hitting the retweet. But there is something else at work here. The natural inclination when journalists and journalism educators see tweets from news organizations like CBS and NPR is, well, to believe what is being tweeted.
That just needs to stop.
A new Twitter ethos is needed. Here are a few ideas:
* Retweeting. Don’t retweet immediately. Especially if it’s breaking news. A colleague and I were talking about the Days Before The Web and how the wire services used to send off bells on major breaking news events. (Ronald Reagan getting shot was 10 bells.) So, think about waiting for those 10 bells to go off.
* Trust. Stop trusting mainstream news organizations. Just because a major name is attached to the tweet doesn’t mean it’s true. Live by the old adage: “If your mother tells you it’s true, check it out.”
* Pick Up The Freaking Phone. In both the Giffords and the Paterno cases, journalistic disaster could have been easily averted by news organizations picking up a phone and doing some original reporting. Again, don’t trust, verify.
* Verify, Verify, Verify. Stop the lazy journalism folks. Hitting the retweet is easy. Do some work instead.
Think before you act!