Case Studies
Jun 16, 2011

[Social Journalism] Is Social Media the Bong of Bad Reporting?

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social media journalism

Late last month, reports swirled of a large number of bodies uncovered at a Texas home, several of the deceased being children. As the old saying goes, a lie can run halfway across the world before the truth gets its boots on, and such was the case here- I first heard the sordid story from a British contact who linked me to a speculative post on the BBC’s website.

As we later learned, the report was entirely false. A suspicious smell offered up as evidence later turned out to be trash on the property, and large quantities of blood found in the home were immediately discerned to have been linked to an earlier, unrelated incident on the premises. But in this day and age, reports of dozens of bodies spread far faster than the correction, with folk cluck-clucking about the state of affairs in the world today.

Not surprisingly, social media has come in for some of the blame in the rapid spread of the spurious tale. Not the fact that such a large law enforcement response (guaranteed to get press) was precipitated by a psychic’s tip, nor the fact that many media outlets used social media to advance the story without waiting for confirmation that the news was legit. Neither is it frequently noted that the media frenzy was kicked off by a phone call to local (old) media by police- Captain Rex Evans of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Department, who made the call to media, later blamed social media for the spread of misinformation:

“I believe that not only mainstream media, but social media, played an integral part in that,” Evans said. “On social media, obviously, no one has to verify anything. I know that [on] certain social media such as Facebook and Twitter, numerous incorrect numbers and incorrect information was disseminated. Again, those are individuals and obviously can print out or send out whatever they wish.”

Back when Napster’s legality was a hot dispute, MTV aired an excellent special on the controversy called Grand Theft Audio. In it, a comparison was made between Napster and bongs- that at the time, Napster was the bong of the internet, essentially. The peer-to-peer sharing service itself wasn’t illegal, but individuals could use the program to commit illegal acts.

Such is the case with social media and journalism. The fact that we can spread information in a heartbeat, in 140 characters to a limitless number of people, is incredible, powerful and amazing. But is it the fault of social media that sometimes the proverbial lie whizzes across the world before credible news organizations have done their due diligence in investigating the information they’ve spread? Is prefacing something with “report” good enough to use trust to gain pageviews?

The answer is, of course, no. It’s tempting to blame the medium for the message- but the fact is that some of the best reporting over the past few years has occurred over services like Twitter. (See the Iranian election protests in 2010.) And networks like Facebook have been used to great effect to affect social change, as seen with the relatively recent unrest in Egypt. A New York Times reporter even said that some of the best reporting to come out of the devastation in Joplin, Missouri was through social media.

To tar the medium as inherently unreliable is to do the world of journalism a great disservice- I don’t expect my pedicurist to reset a broken toe, and neither would I expect @RandomTwitterDude672 to have the inside scoop on weighty matters or ongoing investigations. Its up to old media and law enforcement to use social media as responsibly as they would paper and presses if standards of reporting are to remain the same.

Do you think social media is intrinsically a less-trustworthy medium, or is it inevitable that the bulk of real-time reporting will move to such a model?

[MediaBistro, Mashable]