CNN is still trying to explain the explosion of misinformation that manifested in their coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. The New York Post juggles with their front page where they posted pictures of the alleged suspects that were innocent. Reuters fired their Social Media Editor in the blink of an eye. Dozens of other US news outlets found themselves making apology upon apology for the incessant stream of errors that seemed to plague the coverage of the Boston bombing.
This case illustrates the new challenges we face in a world where social networks are becoming more pervasive. The immediacy of information, issued not from one source but from many to millions of others, creates a rapid and complicated tangle of indecipherable truths among a sea of rumors and speculation.
Newsrooms are feeling pressured to break the news before their virtual competitors, leaving them scrambling for scoops while neglecting to check sources and review information; any information that emerges with even a modicum of plausibility instantly becomes the truth. The people themselves have become both the audience and the source of news.
Twitter and Reddit, for instance, served as fertile breeding grounds for misinformation, with a combination of amateur detectives and eager conspiracy theorists coming together to create a modern-day witch-hunt. In the heat of frantic speculation, an unlikely scapegoat came to the forefront: Sunil Tripathi, a Boston area student that had been missing for weeks prior to the bombing. Renowned journalists and news networks across the United States echoed and amplified this tenuous (and unverifiable) theory, evincing the fragile situation the industry is facing.
Respected news outlets such as CNN and the Associated Press confirmed an arrest that never took place, while the New York Post ran a picture of two men on the cover that had no real connection to the case beyond being present and carrying backpacks—apparently enough to make them suspects.
All of them, spurred by the urgency of responding to demands of the social web, forgot that the same ravenous dynamic that calls for instant updates also tears apart those who spread false information.
In other words, what amount to whispers on Twitter can become shouts in traditional media, regardless of whether said whisper was true or false.
Of course, there are ways the two can coexist in harmony. First, news outlets need to be able to check information faster than ever before. Developing faster methods, using modern technology and training researchers to work more efficiently is an excellent opportunity to get ahead of this challenge.
It would also help to create style guides specifically for dealing with information on the social web, a crucial part of this problem in the digital age.
Last, but not least, collaborative strategies need to take center stage. Everyone must work together toward the common goal of transparency. From corporate managers to publishers, and advertisers to readers, everyone must collaborate to build a new way to communicate and share information.
The options are there. The future is bright. It’s either that, or we continue to perpetuate the endless parade of televised correction apologies that seems to be the trend these days.