Tucson shooting illustrates social media and journalism dance

As social media and traditional journalism continue their awkward dance to find a pleasant rhythm and co-existence tragedies like the recent Tucson shooting highlight there are still plenty of missteps to endure.

For every hard news reporter, breaking news is the extra java blast to your blood in the day. All is serene, you are working on your gem ledes and threading facts and quotes effortlessly on yet another council meeting story or the latest minor league baseball game then….the local plastics factory goes up in flames or a police offer gets killed or you have a situation like the Tucson shooting which claims six lives and injuries a dozen, including a congresswoman.

“Getting it first and getting it right”, is the mantra drilled into any breaking news reporter as they learn their craft. As the internet gained prominence “getting it first” took on a new level and pressure for those of us who welcomed it. The meshing of the internet and social media with traditional media has been messy in of itself sometimes as we all try to co-exist and ply the skilled craft and trade we love.

However, that awkward dance I mentioned in my lede only has become more so as Facebook and Twitter evolve. They are not just as social communication sites but are becoming the first and for some, the only link and access to news. This is where the stepping on toes and sweaty hand-holding of the dance between social media and journalism really takes hold.

Scene at Tucson shooting. Photo: AP

“Getting it first” now entails getting it first on your publication’s blog or Twitter, let alone your website. Reporters then find themselves competing with other Tweeters and bloggers to both collect and distribute news while having to disseminate what is hard fact, what is conjecture and what is plain rumour or innuendo via social media.

The actual tidbit of fact via social media is not the problem; it is finding the time to verify it under new digital reporting pressures. That Tweet is no different than the anonymous phone call from someone reporting some obscure or juicy fact about a murder, fire or councillor. It is information and it is a reporter’s responsibility to verify it the best they can, working credible sources, even off the record, before running with it.

The issue arises when the race to “get it first” and the trouble with verification leaves a media outlet in the conundrum where they couch unverified information as “alleged” “unverified reports indicate” “unnamed sources say” “rumoured to be” etc. etc. in order to “get it first”. Not an uncommon quagmire many a newsroom has been in.

Remember, unverified rumours and information via Twitter are like undercover whispers, they require work to verify.

The problem is not the couching per se, the problem is how that information you have not verified, but have now given a stamp of approval to by using it, is then used by other social media users, who simply see it as “Hey, the New York Post has this up, it must be real now” and they do not pay any attention or mind to how the information has been couched.

In the early hours of the Tucson shooting aftermath, blended information and facts flowed via traditional and digital media, creating some serious misinformation, such as the reports of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords being dead.

Washington and Lee University journalism professor Claudette Artwick, said in a recent interview, that the Tucson shooting illustrate the changing nature of the way in which we receive information.

“This is where we live now,” said Artwick, who studies how journalists use social media, in a statement via Newswise. “Many people are receiving their news through Twitter and other social media. It’s no longer the favourite station or the favourite newspaper. People are getting their information from many, many different sources.”

Artwick said journalists are also trying to figure out just how to use Twitter. This became apparent as the Tucson event unfolded when tweets from mainstream media outlets, from National Public Radio to CBS anchor Katie Couric, showed up alongside the tweets and reTweets of both eyewitness and casual observers.

Time to foxtrot.

“Getting it right” needs to remain in the forefront for journalism, no matter the digital and social media pressures. It has to, or we are then no better than the gossipy person behind you in the grocery store checkout line.

The dance itself is not bad and we all have to learn along the way what the new steps are. The days of the foxtrot may be over but the fundamentals still remain to a degree, at some point social media and traditional journalism will find their rhythm as will the readers who use them.

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