We Need a Golden Rule for Breaking News

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing one commenter called it a “watershed moment for social media” – but not in a good way. “Legions of Web sleuths cast suspicion on at least four innocent people, spread innumerable bad tips and heightened the sense of panic and paranoia,” wrote Ken Bensinger and Andrea Chang in the L.A. Times. In a similar post, Alan Mutter quipped that crowd reporting after the Boston Marathon went from critical mass to critical mess.

Recent events like Hurricane Sandy and the Boston marathon bombing have cast a harsh spotlight on the brave new world of breaking news and highlighted the critical need for better tools and techniques for verifying and making sense of the flood of information these events produce. This has all played into the ongoing debate about whether the Internet and new technology erode our standards and our trust in newsgathering.

I created my new site, Verification Junkie, because I believe the web can be a powerful tool in creating more trustworthy journalism.

The problem is not the tools, it is how we use them. In his post-mortem on the media frenzy that led to a “misinformation disaster” after the Boston bombing, Alexis Madrigal writes, “No one gets off easy here. This isn’t a new media versus old media story. All kinds of people participated in last night’s mistake.”

conflictingreportsBlaming Reddit, or Twitter, or Facebook misses the point and does nothing to help build a more accountable and accurate media system. Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist (and a bit of a verification junkie himself) recently wrote that when it comes to accuracy in the media “what we have now are a lot of ethics codes and policies, but very little accountability.”

Should that accountability come from inside or outside the newsroom? Ideally both. Newmark outlines five suggestions for newsrooms who want to build more trustworthy relationships with its audience. It’s a good list, but I would add that newsrooms can be verification evangelists and help their communities through training, media and digital literacy. More and more news organizations are building community around journalism and experimenting with new ways of engaging their readers. Done right, news organizations could help strengthen crowd reporting before the next crisis and deepen the trust of their communities.

To be clear, technology isn’t separate from the culture in inhabits or the culture it creates. In his 1956 book Four Theories of the Press, Fred Siebert argued that “The press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates.” The telegram ushered in the inverted pyramid, cable news brought us the 24-hour news channel, and now we have social media.

“It starts to feel as though we’re Pavlov’s dogs—subjects in a vast experiment in operant conditioning,” reads an unsigned piece posted at New York Magazine. “The craving for information leads to behaviors that are alternately rewarded and punished.” But to describe it as an experiment suggests it is outside of our control, when in fact, the culture of these new platforms is still being negotiated.

That’s why it is so important – whether you are a journalist or not — to report as you’d want others to report, tweet as you’d have others tweet. This is my breaking news golden rule.

Allan Mutter, who I mentioned at the top of this post, ends his post by arguing that “we all need to take a hard look at ways that the democratization of the media enabled by digital technology can be channeled to more constructive purposes than is often the case today.” And that is where Verification Junkie comes in. At Verification Junkie I offer a range of tools journalists and citizens can use on the fly in their daily life.

Stay tuned – in the coming weeks I’ll be profiling how various newsrooms are actually implementing these tools into their workflows. As always, send tips (and corrections) to @jcstearns on Twitter.

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