The way that inaccurate news reports about a mass shooting in Connecticut filtered out through social media has brought up many of the same criticisms as Hurricane Sandy — that social media isn’t an appropriate forum for journalism. But this is simply the way news works now.

If it seems like just yesterday that we were talking about how error-prone Twitter and other social-media outlets were during a crisis, that’s because it was almost yesterday — Hurricane Sandy, the last event to really stress-test the accuracy of real-time citizen reporting and “networked journalism,” happened just six weeks ago. Now, the shooting of six adults and 20 children at an elementary school in Connecticut has raised many of the same issues, since Twitter was filled with inaccurate reports about the incident. For some, this proves that social media is not an appropriate tool for journalism, particularly real-time news reporting. But I think it shows something very different: I think this is just the way the news works now, and we had better get used to it.

Many of those criticizing the spread of false reports on Twitter seem to be drawing a firm line between the way that people behave on social networks and the way that “real” journalism is practiced by traditional news sources such as the New York Times or CNN. And yet, many traditional sources — including both of those trusted institutions, as well as plenty of other TV news programs — reported some or all of the same inaccurate news that swept through Twitter. On top of that, the two have become so intertwined that much of the news (both accurate and inaccurate) about the shootings that appeared on television likely started on Twitter or Facebook.

Twitter was wrong — but so were CNN and CBS

The most obvious example of how error-prone the reporting was by both traditional and non-traditional players was the identification of Ryan Lanza as the shooter, and the subsequent publicizing of the Facebook profile page of someone with the same name. For almost an hour, CNN was reporting Lanza as the suspect and showing a screenshot of his alleged Facebook page, until it suddenly stopped doing so. As it turned out, Ryan Lanza is the shooter’s brother, and the confusion may have arisen because Adam Lanza — the 20-year-old man whom officials say pulled the trigger at the school in Newtown, Conn. — was carrying identification that belonged to his brother.

The confusion over the shooter’s identity was just one of many examples of the false information that flowed freely during the incident: both the television news and social media also reported that Lanza walked into a school classroom and shot his mother, who was a teacher at the school — but it now appears that his mother was not a teacher at the school, and that she was shot at the home they shared in Newtown. It was also reported that Lanza used two, three, four and even five guns during the incident (police officials say that he had three — two handguns and a .223-caliber assault rifle).

fail stamp

Is social media responsible for these mistakes? Hardly. Most of them were reported by CNN and other traditional news sources as well, and in many cases Twitter users simply repeated them. Should they have verified the information before repeating it, as so many Twitter critics advise users to do? It’s hard to see how they could have done so, even if they wanted to. And to ask people to stop using Twitter or other social media during such an event seems naive at best — for better or worse, social networks are a crucial part of how we communicate now, and how we share both information and our emotional reaction to events like the Newtown shooting.

Even the attempt to “name and shame” the shooter by publicizing his Facebook page is a natural response to such a tragedy. Is it unfair when innocent people are identified in this way? Of course it is. And it would clearly be better if we could all wait before we do this, rather than jumping to conclusions — or if we could rely on Twitter and Facebook to implement solutions that somehow save us from ourselves — but that isn’t likely to happen either.

It’s not social media’s fault — real-time news is chaotic

One thing to remember is that the process of reporting news during a real-time event like a shooting has always been chaotic and riddled with inaccuracies: it’s the nature of the beast. In the case of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, the traditional methods of getting information from the area are frequently disrupted, which makes it even more difficult to determine what is accurate and what isn’t — and in the case of a shooting like Newtown, the amount of information available is extremely restricted, because police forces and other officials are reluctant to talk, and may not even have all of the relevant information themselves.

In the past, this chaotic process of journalistic sausage-making was kept mostly hidden from TV viewers and newspaper readers. Inside the newsrooms at these outlets, reporters and editors were frantically trying to collect information from wire services and other sources, verifying it and checking it as best they could, and then producing a report at some later point. The advent of 24-hour news shows like CNN removed part of the veil from this process, but social media has torn the veil away completely — now, real-time news reporting happens in full public view, and people like Andy Carvin of National Public Radio have actually made this approach their calling.

We can disagree about whether this is beneficial or not (I happen to believe that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, and that Twitter is to some extent a “self-cleaning oven”) but we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, any more than the music industry could somehow force people to stop copying mp3 files. The process of reporting news about a real-time event belongs to us all now — and that includes the armies who are fighting the wars that we are reporting on, as the recent social-media battle between Israel and Hamas showed — and so we had better figure out how to take advantage of it.

One way to do this is for journalists both pro and amateur to shift their skillset from simply reporting facts to assembling and/or fact-checking them, using the crowd for assistance as Carvin has, and focusing on the kind of approach taken by the BBC’s “user-generated content” desk and other innovative approaches to the process. In the end, we could wind up with not just a new way of building the news, but a dramatically better one.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Petteri Sulonen and Hans Gerwitz

  1. Great piece, Mathew. When I first began writing about Continuous News (before Twitter), I noted that it was, in fact, the news gathering process made public. Anybody who’s worked in a newsroom knows that during spot news, mistakes frequently accompany facts as the news organization tries to figure out what’s happening. Make that public, and the same thing is bound to occur. I think it’s just the price of real-time flows and streams of information. Frankly, to expect the same vetting that finished product news produces in a stream of real-time information is really ignorant.

    1. Thanks, Terry — totally agree. In fact, I would argue we are better off with the news process we have now than we were before. Now at least we can all see the errors happening in real time, and they can be corrected in real time.

      1. Steffen Konrath Sunday, December 16, 2012

        Making “the news gathering process… public,” what is that good for? And what are the benefits you did not mention, when you write “we are better off with the news process we have now than we were before. Now at least we can all see the errors happening in real time, and they can be corrected in real time”?
        – Steffen

      2. I think those are the main benefits — the transparency is the biggest one, so that we can all see who is arriving at what information and how. I think it’s better to have that occur out in the open rather than behind closed doors.

      3. What does it mean to correct errors in “real time?” How do we see **and know** what “errors [are] happening in real time?” So far, it appears that the people who are first correcting these news errors are the ones being **incorrectly** identified as the perpetrators of these crimes.

        A news error, once reported, is going to be disseminated very quickly given the proliferation of social media today. There is no “correction of errors in real time;” that’s a sound bite that has no practical meaning.

        Go back to the timeline of the Connecticut school shootings. It took *hours* before news report errors were *fully* corrected. In some cases, the errors went thru various iterations before the actual facts were reported.

        Take the case of the shooter’s mother. At first it was reported that she was a teacher and was killed at the school. Then there were reports that she was not a full-time teacher but only a part-time teacher. Then it was reported that the shooter’s brother had been found dead at home. Then it was correctly reported that the mother was the one found dead at her home and later, correctly reported that she was not a teacher at the school.

        As another example, major news media that heard the shooter’s name, in their eagerness to be “the first to report,” looked on Facebook for a name and locale match and reported that person to be the shooter. It turns out they were wrong, just as the news media were wrong in initially reporting who the shooter was in the “Batman” movie theater shootings. Furthermore, in this case, it turns out that authorities and the media got the name of the Connecticut shooter wrong and some hours passed before that was corrected.

        People (non-news professionals who communicate news and information via social media) should understand and practice the basic tenets of professional news reporting. For starters, this means realizing that the first information coming from incidents like these may be incorrect.

        People should be skeptical about passing along information such as names in the first minutes and hours after incidents like these. There is no substitution for practicing the principles of professional news reporting; one doesn’t have to be a professional news reporter to understand what these are.

        The “new normal” should not be about passing along information without critically thinking what the ramifications could be if that information turns out to be incorrect. We have a fundamental responsibility as citizens to understand what we choose to communicate.

  2. It’s hilarious how journalists see Twitter and how serious they take it.
    Other that that your opinion is quite shocking.
    The pro media is supposed to have ethics and ,well, be pro, yet in their race for audience the quality of the reporting is dropping and standards are lowered.

    “Even the attempt to “name and shame” the shooter by publicizing his Facebook page is a natural response to such a tragedy.Is it unfair when innocent people are identified in this way?”
    Really,are you saying mob lynching is ok? Lynching the wrong guy is not but to hell with the guilty one, it’s not like we have laws to punish him.Endorsing or encouraging this kind of mentality is not ok , at least in a civilized world and we should at least try to pretend that we are that.

    1. I’m not endorsing or encouraging that behavior — in fact, I have written before about the dangers of doing so. I am simply describing what happens, not promoting it.

  3. once again, you pissed off. just hate journalism

  4. Scallywagandvagabond Saturday, December 15, 2012

    Breaking news reveals that Adam Lanza had vociferous arguments with 3 of the 4 deceased teachers a day before at the school. It is not understood at present the nature or why the arguments even took place, although it is known the 4th teacher survived because they failed to turn up to class which implies Lanza had a real beef to deal with as now investigators believe the altercation inspired Lanza to come back the following day to unleash his venom….


  5. Great points as always, and I’d like to suggest there’s a middle ground, too. At Breaking News, we move faster and yet provide a layer of verification and transparency over the top. If our traffic is any indication, we believe there’s a need in the marketplace for a mix of speed, source-agnostic curation and credibility.

  6. “It’s not social media’s fault” you say that like social media is a person

  7. oldnewspaperman Sunday, December 16, 2012

    Twitter is not a self-cleaning oven, the way that any rumor is not cleansed by a correction. Once the mistake is retweeted, it takes on a life of its own. Matthew is wrong. This is not the future of news. It is the future of crap that pretends to be news.

    1. Your user name gives you away, I think — we can’t reconstruct the old model of news creation or consumption, much as we might like to.

  8. Thank you for an equally well thought-out and thought-provoking piece, and the interesting references it links to. Stumbled onto here via Twitter, incidentally.

  9. Aldrin Menezes Sunday, December 16, 2012

    Real time or any other news from responsible journalists comes with a commitment for real information while any one can open a social media account and say anything in order to create a sensation

  10. Mathew, Insightful discussion.
    Unfortunately, we are dealing with “probability news” now. Quoting @MargaretAtwood, it “means that you don’t know whether it is true or not, it probably is true, but then again, probably not. Everything is now gossip around the village pump.“
    I wonder what and if CBC is doing anything like BBC’s “user-generated content” desk (which I am not familiar with). I personally find Wikipedia a nice starting point for fact-supported breaking news. It is an easy place to start reading the original news source some claims were based on. And sometimes, I will some additional news sources to the articles to make them better.

    1. Thanks, Kempton — I agree more places need something like the BBC’s user-generated content desk. Great quote from Margaret Atwood too.


Comments have been disabled for this post