'Think before you act' and more rules for journalists on Twitter

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!

About Steve Fox

Steve joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August 2007 and has been working since then to incorporate multimedia across the curriculum.

Since arriving at UMass, Steve has developed several courses modeled after his multimedia journalism course. The courses allow students to work in teams in a newsroom-like environment where they work on packages


  1. says:

    Hi Steve,

    Andy Carvin here. Bringing up the NPR example is always an important one – I should know, as I was the one who wrote that tweet. The one thing I’m still trying to figure out is what practices could have been in place to have prevented me from sending the tweet.

    The problem is that this was first and foremost a reporting mistake. The editor running the news desk that day decided to report her “death” on our hourly radio newscast. The weekend Web editors were then alerted to this, and they posted it as the lead story on our homepage, then sent out an email alert to our breaking news subscribers. That’s actually how I found out about it – I was at a restaurant with my family and got the breaking news alert from NPR. It was at that point that I noticed that no one was updating NPR’s Twitter account – its most recent post was reporting Giffords was alive – so I took the headline as represented on our homepage and in the breaking news alert.

    So does that leave me partially at fault? In the sense that I was part of the cascade of failures that day, yes. But it was indeed a cascade – something that was reported first on radio, then the Web, then email, and then twitter. But does that make it primarily a twitter mistake that could have been avoided in the way you outlined in your post?

    The following day, I wrote on a blog discussing the mistake that I felt I needed to report it on twitter, since we had already done so on our other platforms; second-guessing our editors and asking them for more proof is the job of our other editors. But is it my job too? Is it realistic for staff who maintain a news org’s presence on additional platforms and aren’t part of the editorial change to challenge the reporting that’s already been edited and appeared on our primary platforms? Practically speaking, it’s impossible to do it routinely, or everything would grind to a halt. But should there exceptions?

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts. – Andy


  2. says:

    Great post, steve. As a journalist who’d rather be tardy and accurate than early and erroneous, I couldn’t agree more!

  3. Hi Andy —

    Thanks for your comment. The piece was not meant as an attack on you or NPR but unfortunately the Giffords case is an example of a profession that sometimes moves to fast.

    As for the specifics that you outline here, I think that, yes, the need to slow down and fact-check is necessary, especially when it comes to breaking news. You do this now on Twitter when you ask the crowd for confirmation.

    In this case, I think both the Web editor and the person tweeting (you) needed to fact-check — I know of other news organizations where the Web platform will do its own reporting against what their broadcast platform is reporting.

    Is it practical? Well, I think the value of being “first” today is overblown when we measure all the stumbles we’ve seen. I like ESPN’s idea of not breaking news on Twitter….it creates a slowing down process.