ReporterThere’s no mistaking it. The interaction between social media and news media outlets is revolutionizing the way we receive information. Wednesday’s Discovery Communications hostage situation was a prime example of how a verified tip on Twitter can break the news about a crisis.

I’ll admit, I was glued to the #discovery hashtag (and even alerted the Washington Post Twitter account that they needed to use that as well). For me, it was a way to grab as much information as possible, while still watching breaking news from TV reporters. However, I thought Lisa Byrne’s (@DCEventJunkie) Twitter comment hit the mark: “BREAKING NEWS: Everyone’s a Reporter.” At that moment, everyone felt like they were actually a journalist, retweeting and distributing accurate information. However, she and I shared the same sentiment in that statement. Just because you have some of the data, it doesn’t mean that you have an accurate, fully reliable story. Let’s face it:

“News” and “information” are not the same thing

Let me clarify here, as I’m sure I may have a few of my social media friends ready for discussion (and I welcome it!). We saw incredible amounts information come through the Twitter lines, from Discovery employee accounts of what was happening on the ground to those who were conveying thoughts from their Discovery friends. As my friend Alex Priest pointed out in yesterday’s blog entry for Technorati, Twitter was a great spot for crowdsourcing information, for reporters to possibly find sources through Foursquare or gain potentially accurate details. I believe that was an important outcome from this entire situation.

However, “information” doesn’t necessarily equal “news”. News is factual and should be verified by sources. Journalists, whether on social media or more traditional news outlets, are trying their best to ascertain if the information is reliable or not. Ultimately, their necks are on the line with their news outlet and they better have the information correct. That level of accountability is a must and is something that the general public relies on.

That said, I think we can’t deny what we witnessed on the #Discovery hashtag on Wed. Social networks, especially Twitter, gained credibility as being an information source. Even when some misleading information circulated, such as the picture of the SWAT team member who mistakingly was verified as the gunman (and distributed on some news outlets as such), many were there to debunk the false information. However, credibility was still a huge concern when the false info spreads too far too fast and isn’t caught with a discerning eye. Some have claimed that corrections of the misinformation from the above mentioned picture spread quickly, but I’ve heard from many people who didn’t see the correct information and are still spreading false statements about the TweetPhoto.

There was a deluge of information out there, a situation that has its pros and cons. While it was great for getting information, the major con was that sometimes the correct news couldn’t be verified and reach the masses because there was too much noise. Next time, here are some things to consider while watching breaking news over a hashtag:

  1. Authority belongs to those who can truly verify information – trust those authority figures: News outlets who have discussed the information with the police or SWAT teams are reliable. When looking at media relations from an “authority” point of view, I have a priority checklist: police, media, corporation or party involved, bystanders. Essentially, 90% of us on Twitter were bystanders and couldn’t prove the information was fact.
  2. When in crisis, emotions run high and information MUST be cleared as fact: If you’ve been in a crisis situation (whether directly or indirectly by knowing someone in crisis), then you know how crazy the environment can be. Many people aren’t thinking logically and rationally, and can easily spit out information that isn’t true. I’m not saying this necessarily was the case with #Discovery, but information needs to be fact-checked simply because too many emotions are in the mix. When using social media as a source for breaking information, we need to take everything said with a grain of salt until it is verified. Remember, quantity doesn’t necessarily trump quality.
  3. Spread the information – as long as you’re 99% sure that it is accurate: Most journalists have an internal compass to make sure all of the facts are correct before publishing. As social media people, we need to develop that same trait instead of blasting out info that is completely false at times. I’ve been guilty of it to and learned those lessons the hard way. Before you hit the retweet button, think twice.

All of that said, I enjoyed watching the #Discovery hashtag and seeing it come into its own as a way to get information to news media. I also greatly applaud the efforts of all the news media, especially WUSA 9, ABC7, NBC Washington, the Washington Post, FOX News – your coverage was phenomenal! In the end, I think that Paul Farhi, Washington Post reporter, and Allan Horlick, president and general manager of WUSA-TV said it best in yesterday’s Washington Post article:

“But as rich as Wednesday’s Twitter feed was, it was merely a starting point for reporters. ‘The initial information may have come to us through these tools, but we have to apply the old-media skills of vetting and serving as a filter’ for what’s accurate, said Horlick.”


Featured image and image above by Flickr user Shavar Ross under Creative Commons license.

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