The mass shooting of small schoolchildren in the United States on December 14th could be a watershed moment in the evolution of gun control in the United States, but it may also signal a critical shift in the sharp debate about how journalists use social media as a source of news.
Social media, and particularly Twitter, rapidly collect and disseminate news. That is a bonus for readers, but only when the information is reliable. It becomes a liability and potentially damaging when it is wrong.
The way some media picked up the trail of inaccuracy and speculation during the drama of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, has prompted criticism of how some journalists blindly follow online leads.
These were not minor blips in a seamless stream of fast-flowing information – the wrong man was named as the killer, for instance, and there was much confusion about his dead mother. Was she a teacher? Had he killed her while she was in class before turning his guns on her infant pupils?
Voicing his frustration with this Michael Wolff in The Guardian made a trenchant assault on the Tweets of Andy Carvin, a so-called Twitter guru from National Public Radio, who he accused of being one of those responsible for laying a trail of unfounded speculation about the shootings.
Carvin responded, lamenting The Guardian’s failure to allow him to comment on the criticism in advance, and staunchly defending his role as someone who circulates raw information to thousands of followers in order to verify it.
In an exchange with me, Carvin says his role is not to “rush to publish” but more a “rush to analyze”, even if that means putting out the wrong information.
It is precisely this approach that Wolff lambasts in his column. He writes, “While the guise is to retweet in order to verify, the effect is to propagate.”
Carvin may not be the “fevered spreader of misinformation,” Wolff claims, but his style of publishing unclear information as a form of fact-checking has no place in the newsroom. It has never been any form of recognisable journalism to spread lies in order to verify facts.
The way inaccurate news reports about the shooting in Connecticut filtered out through Twitter shows that social media cannot be an appropriate forum for journalism, but it is the way that breaking news works these days.
The rush to be first is an impulse that drives journalism and social media and it is a race where the big loser is the wider audience.
An extensive report on the future of journalism from the Tow Center recently noted that social media is now the norm for covering news. The report confirms that increasingly the role of journalism is not to retweet rumour and speculation from the online world, but rather to verify facts and provide much-needed context to the story.
Crowdsourcing news is here to stay but media and journalists should continue to stick to the facts, even in a crisis. Journalism should not get drawn into the slipstream of social media when it is blowing up a storm. When it does, media run the risk of multiplying errors and misinformation and that could be fatal for the future of journalism itself.