When it comes to breaking news, there’s no arguing that individuals using social media platforms are among the first to “report.” But, being the first isn’t always the most important thing in journalism.
Take CNN for example. When covering the Supreme Court ruling of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” CNN.com reported “Mandate struck down.” But the mandate wasn’t struck down, it was upheld. Although CNN fixed its mistake minutes later, some say it was one of the biggest media screw-ups in American history.
Although CNN’s mistake wasn’t a product of misinterpreting information from social media, it is a great example of why accuracy shouldn’t be sacrificed for timeliness. Information found in social media is much like a double-edged sword; it can help guide you to a story, but it can hurt if you don’t check your facts.
In an article illustrating efforts that can be taken to avoid mistakes, “The Human Algorithm,” Mark Little mentions that when he first became a reporter, facts were scarce. Today, scarce facts have been replaced with “an unimaginable surplus of information.” Little explains that there is no “secret sauce” to verification, but there needs to be some sort of process in place. For example, if a video “from Syria” is uploaded from Japan – it probably isn’t a valid source.
Alex Murray’s article about social media verification also explains methods that require extensive research. Murray says the BBC even goes to lengths of verifying accents and languages of the so-called location, checking weaponry, vehicles, license plates, etc. Murray agrees there is no exact science to verification; it just takes some complicated research.
Between Murray and Little there is one element that can be the most helpful in verifying content: a trustworthy source.
One example of a trustworthy source is Breann Schossow, an independent contractor who is currently the Society of Professional Journalist’s Julie Galvan Outstanding Campus Member. In a recent interview she explained how she handles social media. Schossow has always taken social media seriously.
“Regardless of the medium I’m using to share a story, I’m going to be accurate,” she said.
At one point in Schossow’s journalism career, she caught wind of a car accident that had just happened. The crash involved five people; but at the time the details of the accident were unclear. If she had reported that all five had died, the news would have spread like wildfire, especially through social media. Not only would she have been wrong, but she would have put the families through additional unnecessary stress. But she decided to wait. And when the official fire department spokesperson’s statement was released she learned that the accident had resulted in three dead and two survivors. Her decision to wait for the official statement proved to be a smart move.
Further reinforcing the importance of accuracy, Schossow said, “It’s not about being first, it’s about being right.”