Adapt to inaccuracy in social media

Larisa Manescu

It’s a common sight at concerts nowadays: Instead of freely embracing the moment, the members of the smartphone-equipped crowd are more concerned with having their phones in the air, ready to document the experience for the social media realm.

But besides providing a new source of distraction, this attachment to our phones can also prove useful. In an emergency situation, an ordinary spectator has the technology to transform into a citizen journalist that documents not just concerts but also highly valuable information.

Chances are that you first heard about the Boston Marathon explosions through social media, whether from a Reddit post, a tweet, a Facebook status or some combination of the three.

While UT students were sitting in class or at work or taking a nap at home, spectators at the Boston Marathon were suffering fatal wounds, rushing fellow runners to receive emergency care and desperately looking for loved ones, while simultaneously producing written and visual updates on the unfolding activity.

Within an hour of the attack, both traditional and alternative news sites began accumulating and organizing information about the bombing provided by those at the site of the tragedy to create a cohesive narrative.

Live coverage of the Boston explosions by both amateur and professional journalists served many purposes. It kept people around the world informed by capturing developments as they occurred, including heartwarming acts of heroism and empathy. It also captured the raw emotion of the atmosphere and provided valuable primary photo resources that the FBI later used to identify the suspects.

UT journalism professor Robert Quigley, the former social media editor at the Austin American-Statesman, believes you cannot overstate the importance of new technology as a platform for journalists.

“You’re out there, you’re scraping, you’re breaking things as they go and you’re using Twitter,” Quigley says. “If you’re not comfortable in that world, this is a difficult profession for you right now.”

However, as journalists increasingly use social media to reach the public, the repercussions of mistakes become more severe. It’s not that there are more errors; it’s that those errors stick. The mass of information shared after the Boston explosions caused mistakes in professional reporting and media coverage which were then carried rapidly across social media, triggering a vicious cycle of regurgitated misinformation. It was overwhelming, frustrating and sobering to see how an injured witness evolved into a Saudi suspect in the news, or how a Brown University student who has been missing since March became a target of suspicion on Reddit, resulting in the online harassment of his already-grieving family. That piece of misinformation was also picked up by major news organizations such as Politico, Buzzfeed and Newsweek, which then spread it across the web.

Scrutiny, however, can be a difficult skill for journalists to maintain when they are wrapped up in the adrenaline of sharing the latest update.

Andy Carvin, the senior product manager for online communications for National Public Radio, gave a talk about social media and the Boston explosions at the International Symposium for Online Journalism in Austin last weekend. 

Carvin highlighted mistakes made by the press in coverage of the April 15 attack under the pressure to keep social media consistently updated.

“It’s never been easier to spread rumors,” Carvin said.

However, instead of criticizing social media for distorting the ethics of journalism, as some journalism professionals do, Carvin urged the media to think progressively about their relationship to the public. Instead of merely informing the public by telling it what the media thinks it should know, Carvin made the distinction that the media should create a more informed public, or “better consumers and producers of information.” 

Instead of merely slapping “breaking news” on the latest tweets, examples of engagement included organizations being more transparent about what they know by actively addressing rumors on social media platforms instead of pretending they don’t exist and talking to the public about where they came from, even if this means a major news organization admitting its own factual error.

“We should help them to understand what it means to confirm something. Confirming is not just sharing something you heard on Facebook from a friend or brother-in-law,” Carvin said. “Reporting is no longer enough.”

The public needs this wake-up call in order to become skeptical, active consumers instead of passive re-tweeters. Just yesterday, I saw not only friends but fellow journalists re-tweet breaking news from the Associated Press that the White House had been bombed and President Barack Obama was injured. The tweet was false; the AP Twitter account had been hacked. They may be forgiven for trusting the AP as the credible source it normally is, but the fact remains that they didn’t hesitate to verify the information, even in light of recent bomb-related misinformation. We must acknowledge the journalistic problems of social media before we can move forward.

My suggestion: Don’t hate the game, train the players. Social media isn’t just one aspect of the news process; it is intrinsically wrapped up within the news cycle and it’s not going away. Surely, the platform will change, but the effects of information dissemination persists. It is a force that cannot be ignored or detested. Instead, its relationship to journalism should be analyzed and better understood.

Manescu is an international relations and global studies sophomore from Ploiesti, Romania.