Look For The Helpers: Journalists, Social Media and Breaking News

By | February 7, 2014

Mr. Rogers

For better or worse, social networks are an integral part of how people communicate now. It’s how people share news and their emotional reaction to it.

The 24-hour online news cycle delivers a never-ending avalanche of information, misinformation, reaction, shock, surprise, disgust, satire, confusion, reposts/retweets, commentary, debate, speculation, collaboration and trolls.

Online news and social media allow for real-time reporting during emergencies and breaking news, usually when information is only coming out in bits and pieces.

It resembles traditional broadcast coverage of breaking news, except now all types of news organizations and ordinary citizens can participate in the real-time reporting.

The experiences we’ve had with breaking news on social media are chaotic. Truth/understanding is elusive on a delivery platform so quick, so shallow and so emotional. Yet it has still taken hold as a place where more and more people go to consume and share information.

Some mistakes are inevitable during breaking news, but how do we – individual journalists and news organizations – act when we realize we made a mistake? Those with influence are more accountable than others. We should not take it lightly.

I heard a report on NPR the morning after the Boston Marathon bombing that first became popular after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

It was a quote from Fred Rogers, of children’s television “Mr. Rogers” fame, giving advice:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’

The quote made me think what is the role of journalists, the ones who report the news during a crisis? Are we the helpers?

We should be. Most journalists are drawn to the profession because they want to tell stories and serve the public good.

Whether it’s a human interest story, an in-depth investigation or a breaking news situation, the information news outlets deliver is supposed to help — help people be safe, serve as catalyst for change, cultivate understanding, bring people together, help communities heal.

So what if a TV report or newspaper story, or a journalist tweet or Facebook post doesn’t help? Then what is its value?

It either hurts or it is meaningless noise.

Reputable journalists and their respective news organization shouldn’t traffic in “reckless” reports that cause confusion or damage. Journalism is guided by a professional code of ethics. It is supposed to be different from the latest rumor.

Three tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics:

  • Seek truth and report it.
  • Minimize harm.
  • Be accountable.

In the old days, newspaper folks strived to get the “whole” story before publishing – once a day. Having to significantly update or change a story the next day was often viewed as a weakness.

Meanwhile, broadcast journalists, (and now digital news purveyors), think differently due to the immediacy of their medium. News gathering is an iterative process. They try to give the audience the most information they have at any moment, being transparent (ideally) in the quality of their details. Since the shape of any story is constantly changing, updates are seen as a positive.

But that’s not an excuse for a broadcast or online news outlet to speculate wildly or permit sloppiness. Yes, the internet can correct errors faster than almost any other medium, but it doesn’t give us a license to make errors. News organizations shouldn’t lead the public to conclusions on unconfirmed information. There’s a difference between truth and truthiness.

Reputable news organizations chase after two things: the truth and a good story.

During breaking news situations, there’s also the strong desire to be first. If you are first with a report and it gets amplified, you get the most attention. Journalists don’t get any attention if they don’t report.

That sets up a competition between being first, being provocative, and being right.

The current news-breaking tool, Twitter, raises the competitive stakes by letting “everyone” learn news the second after it’s sent. No waiting until the next day’s paper. No waiting until the 11 p.m. broadcast.

When everyone is competing on a single network, media becomes a game of attention, noted Om Malik, founder of tech news site GigaOM.

But being first is also risky because if your exclusive breaking news report turns out to be wrong, the audience will remember you were first to be wrong. Your credibility takes a big hit.

People gave you their attention and you failed to fulfill their expectations.

Because the web’s ability to disseminate information is faster and more far-reaching than any other medium, incremental, unconfirmed online reports can be copied, shared, searched and archived. If you tweet a “fact” that later turns out to be wrong, or post erroneous information on Facebook, it can be copied and shared over and over and over again. The bad information may linger indefinitely.

How are journalists and their news organizations using social media during breaking news situations?

  • Observations from on-scene reporters and photographers
  • To “live tweet” or “live-stream” press conferences.
  • Use their main news online channels to amplify information from news staff and promote coverage on other media (broadcast, print products)
  • RT reporters / other sources / other media / citizens
  • Amplify the report of another news organization, usually without independently confirming the information.
  • To conduct conversations with sources – request for interviews / call outs/ shout outs.
  • When the Newtown Bee’s website crashed in the hours following the Sandy Hook shooting, the staff used social media to spread information about school lockdowns, re-routed traffic, and grief counseling. “Facebook and Twitter accounts have been a lifeline to our community,” said The Newtown Bee’s Jon Voket.
  • Find new sources/ monitor conversations/ monitor each other.
  • Journalists also using social media to debunk rumors from public / or explain/address why they aren’t reporting what the “pack” is reporting.
  • Immediate feedback loop from the audience. (After news organizations were being criticized for interviewing children, CNN’s Anderson Cooper said in a tweet he would not be interviewing any children.)


American University professor W. Joseph Campbell told The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi the incorrect facts were “narrative fulfillment” — they fit the story that people wanted to tell.

  • Reports of multiple shooters at the school.
  • Mother a kindergarten teacher.
  • That the mother’s body was found inside the school. Rumor that the principal had buzzed in the shooter in because she recognized him as the son of a colleague.
  • Inaccurate details how the shooter got access to the school
  • Shooter had 5 guns. Or 3. Or 1. The kind of guns.
  • Reports of a second person in custody.
  • Two brothers might have been together at the time of the shooting
  • At 3:22 CNN reported a senior law enforcement official familiar with the investigation says a brother of the alleged shooter was found dead in a home searched in Hoboken, New Jersey. CNN took it back at 6:45 p.m.
  • Allegedly missing girlfriend of the shooter
  • Reporting it was a kindergarten classroom missing. Was actually a first grade classroom

The worst error in my opinion, was when the wrong person – Ryan Lanza – was named as the shooter.

  • 2:17 p.m. CNN’s Susan Candiotti reports the name of the suspect as Ryan Lanza. Other news organizations follow. Online mob assumes guilt – attack him.
  • 3:12 p.m. AP Tweets it, too. Even more news organizations go with it. Ryan Lanza online attacks continue.
  • 3:42 p.m. press conference Ct. State Police spokesperson J. Paul Vance does not address or correcting the misinformation.
  • 3:58 p.m. CBS backtracks
  • 5 p.m. Vance finally addresses it. “We will identify the shooter at an appropriate time.  Just for our investigatory purposes it’s not appropriate right now.” By that time, media has switched over to the actual shooter, Adam Lanza. Damage done.

It was social media sharing by the crowd/mob that emphatically advanced the distortions.

When a Facebook profile of a “Ryan Lanza” was easily accessible, Google searchers and social media users—from journalists to regular folks – assumed they had discovered the Facebook profile of the gunman.

Emotions are running high. You feel useful you found something. It gives you understanding, someone to blame.

A bunch of news outlets including BuzzFeedMediaiteGawker, and Fox News speculated that the Facebook account belonged to the shooter. Journalists from SlateHuffington Post, CNN, and other news organizations tweeted links to the Facebook profile. The misinformation became credible because it was amplified by credible sources.

But as we know, it was the wrong guy.

The AP later reported that “a law enforcement official mistakenly transposed the brothers’ first names.”

Blame the anonymous police source.

The result: for a few hours based on the news media’s speculation about the suspect’s identity, an online lynch mob vilified Ryan Lanza. Ryan Lanza, protested his innocence amid the deluge of incoming messages. Even Ryan Lanza’s social media friends and followers were receiving hundreds of hate-filled messages.

If the news media’s misinformation incited a mob, is the media culpable for the online mob’s actions?

Situations during breaking news events leading to mistakes:

  • Strong desire to be first. Get the exclusive and the attention. Have your story as the one that is shared the most.
  • During breaking news situations, amount of information available is extremely restricted, either because officials are reluctant to talk or may not have all information themselves.
  • Pressure to deliver immediate results intensifies. Social media allows the audience to participate in the dissemination of news updates instantaneously. While events are still unfolding the audience demands to see new information no matter how shaky it may be.
  • Timelines for decision-making are compressed.
  • Over reliance on Facebook and other social media sites as a primary research tool. Sometimes journalists can find posts that are accurate, important, and revealing, especially when confirmed with other information. But social media sources should be vetted as carefully as any other source. Social media posts are serving as a crutch for some news organizations rushing to get information, or for those too lazy to do their own independent research.

The Value of Restraint

Since the dawning of 24 hours news with CNN, does the general public yet understand that “breaking news” is a moving target and may not be wholly accurate because it’s being done in real-time?

Speculation, which may have taken place in conversations behind the scenes, now is done out in the open online on social media.

So journalists are disseminating information before it is properly vetted and verified. Is that reckless?

I prefer to beat the drum for restraint, but there is a camp of online journalists who believe the verification process for “facts” should be out in the open. Transparency is a good thing. But that stance also gives journalists an excuse to amplify speculation — speculation that can damage a person’s reputation or cause panic when discovered out of context.

Did naming the wrong suspect during breaking news coverage of Sandy Hook eventually lead us to the right suspect? Would we have found the right one anyway, two hours later? Is waiting two hours for the facts so terrible? In the meantime, Ryan Lanza’s public profile photo on his Facebook account was shared thousands of times with denunciations and even death threats.

When others have already put speculative information out there, showing restraint may seem difficult. But at that moment it can be a competitive differentiator. Exercising some restraint in the practice of modern journalism may turn out to be a virtue.

Ari Fleisher, Pres. George W. Bush former press secretary – offered these five tips to journalists via twitter about breaking news during the Boston Marathon bombing.

  1. Don’t make assumptions
  2. Expect that reporting will skyrocket.
  3. 1st reports will change
  4. Don’t retweet sensational rumors or extreme postings
  5. Spokespeople should not rule too much in/out. (Be vague)

How do you correct an erroneous report online?

Continuously correct reports as they are proven wrong.

Respond to original social media posts so there is a record of the correction connected to the original error and to all retweets/reposts. Old posts can often still be searched and discovered, uncorrected.

If an online error is libelous, delete the original information and make an explicit correction in a new post.

Make clear corrections on every network and web page where you distributed the misinformation.

An example of ethical decision making under pressure

CNN Digital Editor Meredith Artley had one of the first broadcast interviews with a mother inside Sandy Hook elementary school. The interview was particularly harrowing. In an email exchange, Artley recounted how it happened:

“I find myself frequently replaying the conversation I had with the mother that day and thinking about her as she goes on with her life. To this day, she hasn’t yet given her name to the media. She told me in the moment that I could use her name, but we opted not to in those minutes on air.

I wish I could tell you [withholding the mother’s name] was part of a precise, well thought out editorial decision making process. But it was instinct. I talked to her when she was still in the school and the story was still unfolding — both she and I were in tears during parts of the conversation.She is a relative of a close friend of mine so that was the connection.

I asked if it was okay to use her name in our story — my intent at that point was to do a written piece or to put her in touch with one of the writers on my team — and she said yes. I didn’t specify where I could use her name (online or on air). I told her that there may be one or two more people, max, that would reach out from CNN and that she didn’t have to answer or say yes to anything she was uncomfortable with.

I told my TV colleagues about the conversation, and they wanted to me to talk on air about it — that’s what you heard. Everyone knew at that point how delicate it was — I haven’t asked Suzanne, our anchor who I was talking to, if she wondered if she should have asked for the name of my source. I like to think that she knew, too.

It was just so raw and fast moving at that point, and my instinct was to protect my source — if she wanted to let her name be known, I wanted it to be her decision, made as fully and clearly as possible and not in the minutes after the tragedy. I knew that putting her name out there would unleash a media storm on her and her family. Other organizations got in touch with her (finding out who she was thru other means) and I later tried gently to see if she wanted to talk to CNN — but she declined. She declined all requests. So out of all the horribleness of that tragedy, it’s one very small thing that went right. In the end, she wanted to keep her privacy. She may decide otherwise one day, but that decision needs to be hers, on her own terms, if and when she’s ready.”

This post was adapted from my April 2013 presentation entitled “Covering Newtown” at the University of Connecticut which examined the breaking news coverage of the deadly December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

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