There should be a quite a lot of soul-searching in the journalistic establishment after an epically disastrous Saturday evening on the Interwebs. Enterprising journalists from around the world rapidly spread two completely false stories by Twitter. The incidents should give everyone pause and offer the opportunity to reconsider social media policies when reporting breaking news.
First, the two stories.
1. Jeb Bush’s Reported Endorsement: Shortly after the South Carolina primary was called for Newt Gingrich, CNN’s John King appeared to land a big scoop. He announced that former Florida Governor (and brother of ex-President George W. Bush) Jeb Bush would endorse Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination. Problem was Bush didn’t have any intention of endorsing anyone (he later issued a statement to confirm that). Jim Roberts of the New York Times probably spread the news quickest with this tweet, but other people picked up on it quickly. Pundits jumped on the announcement and began analyzing its impact on the race before Bush denied the rumor in his statement.
2. Joe Paterno Died: Perhaps more disturbingly, Twitter exploded with news that Penn State’s legendary coach Joe Paterno passed away last evening (since then Paterno has of course sadly passed on). Journos around the world tweeted and retweeted the news. Unfortunately, the reports were traced back to one student publication, Onward State, who tweeted that Paterno died around 8:45 p.m. (their leader has since resigned over the flap). CBSSports.com picked up the story and published their own based (apparently) solely on the original report from Onward State. They later issued an apology, “CBSSports.com holds itself to high journalistic standards, and in this circumstance tonight, we fell well short of those expectations,” managing editor Mark Swanson wrote. Other major news organizations like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed also published stories that cited the CBSSports report as the source of their information. It’s worth noting that none of the major news organizations like the New York Times, Reuters, AP, Washington Post or ESPN confirmed the news on their websites.
So how should these incidents be viewed in the journalistic community? More than a condemnation of Twitter, I think instead they remind us of the importance of getting the story right and maintaining solid journalistic fundamentals. Social media sites have transformed how people obtain their news and how they share it (for example, I learned about the deaths of Steve Jobs, Gaddafi, Osama Bin Laden, Kim Jong-Il by Twitter first). Once something breaks, it literally moves around the world in minutes. And that’s a good thing overall.
But, one of the first things journalists are taught is to verify your information and cite your sources. Particularly at the national level, when dealing with important, sensitive stories, those principles become even more important. Everyone is human and mistakes will be made, but there is no excuse for publishing a story about the death of a legendary sports figure with the uncorroborated reports of a student online publication as your sole source. CBS Sports fell down on their responsibility and other journalists must ensure they don’t fall into the same traps.
Breaking news and grabbing the scoop remains an important part of the business. Everyone wants to do it. That does not mean that standards should slip in order to accomplish the feat. Getting information correct has always been a vital part of the news business (it’s essential for maintaining credibility among the public), but it has taken on an even greater importance since the advent of social media.
The best line about grabbing the scoop comes from Walter Cronkite: “Get it first, but get it right.”
Photo credit: NLSven