Last week we had front-row seats to how traditional media and social media feeds on each other’s failures. Breaking news is not a short newsflash anymore, it has become this rolling segment that tries to spread the information so thin it becomes tedious to watch. Almost like watching Days of our Lives; so slow moving you can skip several episodes without losing the plot.
Traditional media has become so obsessed with breaking news it opens them to a greater risk of inaccurate reporting. As long as you are first, you will presumably have the most viewers. Corrections can be dealt with later when all the facts are on the table.
This seem to be driven by social media that often is first to report on something — some regular person in the midst of an incident with a smartphone and a few social network accounts.
After the last Boston bomber was caught, social media caught a lot of flack for its inaccurate reporting. Arguing that the speed of the information ignores the vital practice of fact-checking and verification of sources. Something traditional media also got a bit flack for too, as some were too eager to source their reporting from social media.
This reminded me of what was a very annoying occurrence when Web 2.0 was introduced, letting anyone leave a comment on a blog post, a news article or a YouTube video. The first comment that read, “First!”
I can not help comparing the ‘First!’ comment with the reporting— by both traditional media and social media —of the Boston bombing. It is similar in the way that ‘First!’ only reflected the intent of the person publishing such a comment; providing no context nor any meaning other than to be first.
Just because someone is first with something does not mean it has any value. Something both traditional media and social media must understand and practice.
If I hear an alarm from a building close by going off, should I start reporting that on Twitter as if it is a robbery in progress? Of course not! If I think it is important to publish, I should only report that I can hear an alarm, then later add why the alarm was set off, when I have all the facts.
When a story breaks on Twitter I often follow it there, but I am very careful with whom I gather information from and whom I retweet. After working as a journalist for a few years now, I find myself being extremely selective when retweeting, because I do not want to pass on incorrect information — nor do I want to provide publicity to someone with incorrect information.
Social media is able to provide a platform for journalists and the public to reach out to everyone with instant information. That means the flow of information becomes more rapid, but that does not excuse reporting inaccurate information. Of course, you can redact it later, but that does not change the fact it is already out there, making its way through the grapevine and possibly held on to as truth by some.
You also have the risk of feeding conspiracy theorists if your incorrect information is very juicy and controversial, then being accused of covering up information for the nasty government with your redaction. A lose/lose situation for everyone — especially for your integrity as a reporter.
Again we witnessed traditional media and social media swerve and crash last week, but we also witnessed how both of them managed to barely survive from the crash, eventually correct themselves in the aftermath — this time.
If we do not relax this obsession of being first, eventually it will backfire on us all when we do it too often and the damage becomes too great. Imagine the impact it would have if social media were available during the first radio broadcast of the play, War of the Worlds.
It is said that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but that does not mean that when you have a pen in your hand you should flail it around and stab everyone in sight, just because you can and want to be the first one to do it.
There is no honour to be the first one with inaccurate information.