In an era of instant news and reaction on social media sites, it is natural for journalists to use sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as a gateway. But ethical questions have evolved: is it proper to use the information received without proper attribution? M<more importantly, it is safe to trust this information when you have not actually seen the event yourself?
Such was the case with the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon s telecast and streamed live on traditional and social media. Not all reporters were at the scene at the finish line of the race and many were alerted to the unfolding events and went into action.
Two glaring – and unfortunate – things occurred due to the internet as citizen journalists” -- including those with cellphone cameras – who took to social media. One came to light in mid-June of this year, the other took place immediately following the bombing.
Teresa Hanafin, director of engagement and social media for the Globe, noted that within minutes of the Marathon incident the Globe’s site was overrun with traffic.
“We were hit so hard with traffic that our site went down. We directed people to our live blog,” Hanafin recalled. “Nobody really noticed…all they cared about was the information about the bombing.”
Among those reporters was Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who wrote a detailed piece of the chaotic scene that took place on that April day. But it wasn’t until five years later that Cullen became the story himself.
Editors like anniversary stories. In April, 2018, Cullen published such a piece – “Five years later: We Feel the Grief Like a Sixth Sense” that drew the interest of Boston WEEI talk show host Kirk Minihane. Minihane was alerted to the situation after receiving a tweet from a listener. Cullen had earlier appeared on a podcast and offered his recollections on being there during that terrible incident. Twitter had caused Minhame to do some digging of his own, and he raised concerns of the authenticity of the column in a post he posted on the radio’s website.
The post led to a Globe investigation, conducted by retired AP executive Kathleen Carroll and former Miami Herald executive editor Thomas Fiedler. It was released in mid-June. A key section of the report indicated Cullen was not at the scene but, instead, had seen images of the bombing on television.
The New York Times reported on the Globe’s investigation “our review leads us to a conclusion that Mr. Cullen damaged his credibility,” according to the paper’s publisher, John W. Henry. “These were serious violations for any journalist and for the Globe, which relies on its journalists to adhere to the same high standards of ethics and accuracy when appearing on other platforms.
Ironically, Cullen was part of the paper’s investigative team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for reporting about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church that was made into the Oscar-winning film, Spotlight.
Had it not been for Cullen’s appearance on a podcast and subsequent tweet from a listener, one could only wonder if the fabrications would have been uncovered. It is questionable whether it would have surfaced before the age of social media.
The other marathon-related incident demonstrated the worst of what re-tweeting and picking up unsubstantiated reports can cause.
Within minutes of the bombing back in April 2013, published reports also noted “tens of thousands” Twitter users crowded onto the city’s police department scanners, tweeting out what the London Telegraph cited as “frantically tweeting everything coming out the crackly line, often mishearing or failing to understand the context.” Twitter began circulating reports that a missing Indian-American student was one of the bombers, which turned out to be totally false. It would be picked up by a reporter by Buzzfeed who put it out to his more than 80,000 followers. And so on, and so forth through the labyrinth that connects social media with the mainstream media until NBC news reporter Pete Williams had hard evidence that contradicted the wrong reporting.
The incidents raise two key questions: first, if a major event such as the bombing does occur and a reporter sees information from broadcasts, is it ethical to use that information without proper attribution from social media, internet or TV? Second, in a more important sense, should reporters use information put out on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites without verifying it first? In the rush to be first, too much trust is being put in the accuracy of social media posts from those who often times are repeating something they saw on TV or heard from friends or followers. That is poor journalism.
I worked as a reporter for United Press International for nearly 20 years in an age when beating the Associated Press by minutes meant a lot. But, one of my editors gave me great advice long before Mark Zuckerberg was born. He emphasized that the reader really doesn’t care who was first, but rather who was right. Being second is far better than having to issue a correction, retraction or an apology.
While social media can be a valuable tool, particularly as a tip service, it can also lead to lazy reporting and challenges to newsrooms. Instead of picking up the phone to interview, reporters pick up the phone to check out social media. It may be quicker but not thorough. How are newsrooms handling this situation?
Some news organizations are specific in their ethics guidelines in both using social media and direct attribution. Others are less clear.
Houston Chronicle: Material that is used from press releases or websites should be attributed to those sources.
Los Angeles Times: Using social media sites in reporting means that you (and the content you exchange) are subject to their terms of service. This can have legal implications, including, but not limited to, the possibility that your interactions could be subject to a third-party subpoena.
New York Times: If you link to other sources they should reflect a “diverse” collection of viewpoints. Sharing a “range” of news is “usually” appropriate. But the Times warns that consistently linking to only one side of a debate can leave the reader thinking you are taking sides as well.
Paul Allen, a reporter/editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, offered some general thoughts on his social media to me in a late June e-mail.
“The biggest thing is to be 99 percent sure that the Facebook/Twitter/etc. account you are quoting indeed belongs to the person it presents itself to be. When something comes out of the blue and is jaw-dropping, then you have to find a way to confirm,” he noted. “I often reach out to people through the messaging portal of those accounts and take it from there. it's really not much different than someone picking up the phone approach to social media.”
Even quoting from social media (permissible, I suppose when all other options have been tried) may have to change.
Maybe the tide is turning-- a little. The Wall Street Journal reported in June that a study done by Edelman, the world’s biggest public relations firm, showed a decline in the faith of social media. The company’s “Trust Barometer” study found only 41 percent of the world trusted social media as a source for news, down from 47 percent in 2015. In the US, only 30 percent trusted social media, down from 35 percent in 2015.
So, what to do? The Cronkite School at Arizona State in its ethics guidelines sums up what makes the most sense about social media and reporting:
“Recognize that use of social networking sites is just ‘one’ way of gathering information. It is no substitute for face to face interviews and other research methods. Seek through every means possible to interview sources in person or by phone to verify identities, claims and statements.”
And, to paraphrase from a former UPI compatriot, Mr. Walter Cronkite – “that’s the way it is – and the way it should be.”