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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).
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.