In the “Tweet” of the Moment

By Nicole Garner

We’ve all seen it – and we might have all done it, too. But at what point does quickly tweeting what we think is factual… become careless?

Last week, news media throughout the nation pounced upon reports that more than 30 bodies were found at a Texas home – but to many tweeters’ surprise – what they saw reported from credible news sources wasn’t true. In fact, it was nowhere close.

Houston authorities investigated a property following a tip from a self-proclaimed psychic, suggesting nearly 30 bodies would be found at the residence. And while authorities surveyed the area, finding not one body, news organizations kept reporting that bodies, some of children, others, dismembered, had been found at the Houston home.

Within hours, CNN and other organizations posted articles and blogs recanting their earlier tweets. But days later, other news media are analyzing the entire incident; a story that wasn’t news at all, and how news organizations are heading too quickly to Twitter and not fast enough to sources for verification.

While Twitter has become a go-to source for breaking news, it’s also become a virtual game of “telephone,” where one misinformed tweet can cycle into hundreds of newsfeeds, reproducing thousands of incorrect responses and retweets.

In the rush to get information out and into the hands of readers, sometimes tweets are posted before they’re verified. But it’s not only an issue major news organizations might experience – it’s a problem that exists throughout the Twittersphere and even at Mizzou.

After the resignation of Mizzou basketball coach Mike Anderson, a media frenzy on both social media and news sites ensued, targeting multiple coaches as Mizzou’s new hire. As Mizzou’s athletics department held talks with prospectives like Purdue coach Matt Painter, sports sites blogged and tweeted, some confirming Painter’s switch to Mizzou.

When Painter confirmed his choice of staying at his alma mater, more confusion followed, with Missouri fans questioning who would take Anderson’s place. And as Missouri revealed its new coach, Frank Haith, a new Twitter storm arose, with fans, bloggers and journalists questioning the choice of a coach whom many had never heard of.

The entire scenario lends its hand to questions about social media ethics. ONA Mizzou held a Brown Bag discussion and live blog, using the incident as a case study for the best practices when using social media to spread news.

If the search for Mizzou’s next coach wasn’t enough of a social media fiasco, another prime example is the use of Twitter in the “Brad Pitt Incident” of 2011. When reports of Brad Pitt sightings were tweeted, Mizzou’s campus became a hunting ground for the celebrity. A rush of tweets throughout the afternoon seemed to confirm Pitt’s appearance on campus, others making convincing arguments as to why the former Mizzou student would be visiting. Once again, another incident where misinformation online quickly spread, creating a real world frenzy.

If Mizzou isn’t able to escape erroneous tweets, as journalists, what do we do?

While every journalist who has a social profile seems to have their own ideas about Twitter etiquette, Robert Niles of the Online Journalism Review brings up a good point:

“Other abbreviations that should find a home in a Twitter style include HT (Hat Tip, or Heard Through) for acknowledging the source through which a reporter heard the information she or he is tweeting, and RR for a repeated tweet.”

Still, Ryan Murphy, Digital Media Editor at the Radio Television Digital News Association has set guidelines for using social media – primarily for Twitter:

“A good rule of thumb before sharing any piece of content, particularly a re-tweet, is to ask yourself how the information, if proven to be false, will reflect on your news organization. In the event you do share or tweet something false, understand that there are measures to correct the error. Be transparent as possible.”

Are these ideas enough to help prevent Twitter stirs from false information? What more should journalists be doing to avoid being incorrect, but still timely?

Join in the discussion and let us know what you think.

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About onamizzou

Welcome to the official blog page for University of Missouri students working to bring the Online News Association to Mizzou.
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One Response to In the “Tweet” of the Moment

  1. This article raises a good point. After Bernie Miklasz incorrectly reported that Matt Painter was “100% confirmed” as the next head basketball coach of Mizzou in the St. Louis Today, many reputable news agencies were re-tweeting/reporting it through online social networks as hard fact. As it turned out, Bernie’s source got his/her information wrong, and he took the fall by apologizing the next day for spreading false information. However, if he had begun with a string of “unconfirmed reports” to relay tentative information, then taken the extra time to confirm his source’s information, he would have never been in that situation to begin with. As for the rest of the news agencies who reported his false info, they feigned ignorance and placed the blame Bernie, despite the fact that they had committed the exact same error (you didn’t hear many apologies from them, either). They didn’t make the connection that RT’ing/HT’ing news from a bad source is essentially no different than what Bernie did. You’re relaying false info, therefore, you own the responsibility for passing this info on as “Fact.”

    Recently, I’ve been seeing more tweets and push notifications with: “Unconfirmed Report: RT/News We Haven’t Verified Goes Here. [Link].” By labeling the story as “unconfirmed” or “developing”, it allows them to buy some time to confirm the story, while still being technically passable as up-to-the-second news without misleading the audience. As Ryan Murphy pointed out: “Be transparent as possible.” It’s funny, because they’ve been using this method in broadcast journalism for years to allow time for the reporters to arrive at site.

    Maybe they just need to find a catchy acronym to associate with “tentative news.’

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