Great article over on TechCrunch today (by Paul Carr) about how social networking-based reporting may mean well, but actually causes more harm than good. In this case, the incident was the shootings at Fort Hood on Thursday, and the social networking site was Twitter. The military and its official spokespeople were informing the press (and by definition, the public) with the information they could reliably release, while inside the fort itself, a soldier was twittering her account of the situation.
Turns out her account was pretty inaccurate, to the point of being deceiving. But the mainstream press, willing to grab at anything they could, took her Twitter posts as valid information and and worked those details into news stories that were circulating fast and furious around the country. Tearah Moore, a soldier from Michigan stationed at Fort Hood, spread more misinformation than honest information through her twittering, including telling people that there was more than one shooter (turns out there was only one, and only one weapon was used), that the shooter had died (he didn’t die and is in fact recovering), and that there were multiple shooting locations within the base including housing and medical areas (there was in fact only one building involved and it was not near housing). It is this kind of citizen journalism that gets mainstream journalists the most upset. No journalist wants to spread misinformation; that is why they are taught to have checks and balances on all stories before they are printed.
I can understand, and appreciate, that the public is clamoring for more information, and that journalists, especially mainstream journalists whose livelihood depends on ratings, want to have the latest information available. But when the line is crossed between accuracy and misinformation, and verification cannot be completed, journalists need to step back and do what they were taught, which is to verify verify verify. I took a lot of journalism classes as part of my public speaking degree, and one thing was made abundantly clear; if information coming from a non-verified source, then the information was suspect. In this case, all of the information from Soldier Moore was suspect; she was not an official spokesperson, her location was inside a hospital where some (not all) of the wounded were being transported, and she had a limited view of what was going on. What she touted as the “truth” was nothing more than her assumptions about what she was seeing. And she was dead wrong in her assumptions.
Social media is just that -social. Even those that are “experts” who may be posting in social media sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, are still posting on social networks where the spread of misinformation is the norm, and cooler heads are not likely to prevail. In my mind, it is important to always look behind that shimmering curtain and see what is really there, before forwarding that information anywhere else. I am not a journalist, and I am not an official spokesperson for anything other than my own thoughts and opinions, and to pretend to be or do otherwise could border on dangerous, and at the very least is irresponsible.
Soldier Moore will likely face disciplinary charges from the military for her twittering during the crisis, especially in the face of the false spread of information. The journalists who used the misinformation for publication/broadcast will also likely face some sort of disciplinary action as well. But how about the rest of us, who are just the people next door, talking about the car wreck we saw or reporting on the last thing the school board talked about, or snarking about our local businesses or constabulary? Let’s all remember that if it shows up on social media, that it is not anything more than someone’s opinion of something witnessed, and to be good at looking for verification of what we’ve heard before passing it on.