Media Tech & society

Essential behavior during breaking news events: think before sharing

It has not been a good week.

Tuesday: Baton Rouge
Wednesday: St. Paul
Thursday: Dallas

One thing these tragic events have in common, besides their being shootings: on-the-scene cellphone video.


Another: rush to “print” or “fill the air” which, almost by definition, means speculation.



And then there are political ops. This Joe Walsh does not play guitar but is, instead, a former member of Congress from Illinois.

(Predictably, Walsh, who is also a talk radio personality, has deleted the tweet.)


“The Internet” is a major source of our news. Last year, Pew reported that almost 2-in-3 people learn about news events from Twitter and Facebook. Almost twice as many people (59% to 30%) reported following a news event on Twitter as on Facebook.

We call this “disintermediation” — which is a fancy way of saying that a handful of media no longer filter our “news.”

The good news is there is no filter, which means official and unofficial voices may both be heard.

The bad news is there is no filter, and most of us haven’t learned how to think critically about what passes for “news”. We lack “news judgment.” We’re susceptible to logical fallacies. We have cognitive weaknesses, like illusory superiority, 20-20 hindsight, and confirmation bias.

These disconnects make it incumbent upon us to think before sharing. Which is hard to do.


Recognizing this challenge, OnTheMedia published a guide to breaking news almost three years ago.

[T]he rampant misreporting that follows shootings like this is so predictable that OTM has unintentionally developed a formula for covering them. We look at how all the bad information came out. We suggest ways that the news media could better report breaking news. This time, we’re doing something different.

That’s why I tweeted out the nine commandments post-Dallas

For readability (or copy-and-paste-ability), here’s the list:

  1. In the immediate aftermath, news outlets will get it wrong.
  2. Don’t trust anonymous sources.
  3. Don’t trust stories that cite another news outlet as the source of the information.
  4. There’s almost never a second shooter.
  5. Pay attention to the language the media uses.
  6. Look for news outlets close to the incident.
  7. Compare multiple sources.
  8. Big news brings out the fakers. And Photoshoppers.
  9. Beware reflexive retweeting. Some of this is on you.


For example, here is an example of #1, based on PD statements:


In the aftermath of a breaking news event, I sift the firehose for nuggets of truth like this:

  1. Look for news organizations near the event and compare coverage.
    I start with local “newspapers” and move to local “tv”. I look for NPR or PBS affiliates. I avoid the national networks and cable: CNN, MSNBC, FOX. I avoid talking heads.
  2. Look for official Twitter and Facebook accounts for media but also public officials, including police departments. Recognize that they are fallible, also.
  3. If there is a hashtag, set up at least one Twitter search.
    Set up an advanced search to constrain tweets to the general area around the event, which will help you identify on-the-ground reporting, citizen or traditional. Use IFTTT to pull a hashtag into a Google spreadsheet if you want a record.
  4. Look for attribution and qualifiers.
    Beware speculation, which is anything without attribution. Rather than share an item that quotes another news source, consider tracking down the original (primary) source and sharing it, instead. If there’s no link, just an “according to xyz news”, that’s not good.
  5. Ignore partisan web sites and accounts.
    They’re going to result in confirmation bias. That’s Breitbart and ThinkProgress, for example. DailyKos and RedState. MediaMatters, which is owned by a former White House strategist turned presidential campaign adviser.

Remember: if something sounds too good (or too bad) to be true, check before sharing. Because it usually isn’t. True, that is.



:: Cross-posted at TMV

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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