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Panel: Social Media’s Role In Breaking News Is A Mixed Bag

by Megan Merrigan | Apr 22, 2013 12:48pm
(4) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Town News, Mansfield-Storrs, Law Enforcement, Media Matters, Public Safety

Hugh McQuaid file photo

Reporters, professors, and Lt. Paul Vance gathered at the University of Connecticut last week to discuss the role of accuracy, respect, and social media in the coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

The timing of the panel couldn’t have been more relevant following a week of reporting on the Boston Marathon bombing, which included CNN misreporting that a suspect was in custody April 17 when that was not the case.

In Newtown, where 20 children, and 6 educators were shot by a gunman Dec. 14, there was information being reported by numerous new outlets during the first few hours following the event that turned out to be inaccurate.

“There was a lot of misinformation,” Bill Leukhardt, a Hartford Courant reporter and stepfather of slain Sandy Hook teacher Lauren Rousseau, said. “Adam Lanza was there because he shot his mother who was a teacher, that wasn’t true. There were multiple shooters, maybe a second person with a gun on the scene, that wasn’t true.”

Leukhardt went on to explain the constant pressure faced by news organizations to be first.  “Unfortunately there are publications that will publish almost any rumor,” he said.

That includes on their Twitter feeds.

Marie Shanahan, a professor of Online Journalism at UConn, said these news events create a “flood” of social media, which a majority of young people use as their primary news source. She said a lot of people learned of the shooting Dec. 14 through social media and it’s how many learned of the Boston Marathon bombings.

“That’s where you’re getting [news] from,” Shanahan said addressing the estimated 50 students in attendance. “You’re not watching a broadcast news channel, you’re not listening to the radio, you’re not reading the newspaper. You’re getting it from social media.”

The problem with social media is that it spreads fast, according to Shanahan.

“If you put something out there that isn’t correct, or is a half truth, or is a speculation, or something you haven’t quite verified, people will copy it over and over and over again,” she said.

Shanahan later gave the example of news organizations misidentifying Adam Lanza, the Newtown gunman, for his brother Ryan, who was receiving death threats to his Facebook account moments after the news broke and then quickly disseminated through the world of social media.

In the days following the tragedy at Newtown, state Police Lt. Paul Vance warned the public against posting misinformation on social networking sites and threaten prosecution of those who disobey.

Vance told Friday’s panel that he was later accused of infringing on First Amendment rights because of this address, and said if he could have gone back he would have worded it differently.

“In this situation, it was important from the get-go that we establish a good line of communication,” Vance said of the relationship between law enforcement and the media following Newtown to assure that all of the information that was to be reported was accurate.

“We had to control rumors, we had to make sure that some of the press from out-of-state, from different locals, weren’t just throwing things out there,” Vance said.

In the days following the Boston Marathon bombings, Boston authorities used social media to their advantage to help identify suspect brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, but later had to deal with the consequences of social media such as fake Twitter accounts under the suspect’s name.

“We use social media in many different ways, and we can use it in good ways.  But, we have to think about the principles,” Shanahan said. “Seek truth and report it, minimize harm and be accountable if you make a mistake,” she said.

That last part is not new. It’s part of the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics.

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(4) Comments

posted by: ASTANVET | April 22, 2013  1:52pm

Honestly, I think journalism has degraded so far in the last 20-30 years that the only thing that people trust is social media, and of course sites like CTNEWSJUNKIE!  NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC, FOX, they all have shown their willingness to cover, or not cover stories because they conflict with their ideology and bias.  Where are the stories about the Abortion Doctor on trial for murder and the horror stories of that clinic?  Silence.  Can that kind of thing happen here in CT?  silence.  Instead the media in CT twist facts to support a narrative that is counter conservatism - that supports big government and ignores it’s failures.  IN Fox’s case they do not cover stories that show federal government success.  They have a word for that…it’s called propaganda.  Social media is the last safe haven for the Edward R Murrow’s of the future.  Some may be sloppy, but I would rather take honest sloppy reporting than vetted and messaged propaganda.

posted by: Aldon_Hynes | April 23, 2013  3:08pm


So, let’s see… A bunch of traditional media reporters and journalism professors got together with a spokesperson for the State Police to talk about social media and accuracy.  Did they include anyone who works in social media?  Or would that come to close to seeking the truth?

Sounds sort of like the flip side of the coin where a bunch of folks on social media were talking about how inaccurate the NY Post’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing was.

Perhaps a more valuable point would be to understand that the accuracy of reports depends on the professionalism and ethics of those reporting, and not on the medium they chose.

posted by: sofaman | April 24, 2013  12:05pm

Traditional media reported lots of things on 9/11 that later turned out to be nothing but rumor.

“The problem with social media is that it spreads fast, according to Shanahan.”

“In the days following the Boston Marathon bombings, Boston authorities used social media to their advantage to help identify suspect brothers. . .”

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the contradiction in those quotes. As already mentioned, it’s not the media, it’s the quality of the message, and how the reader reacts to the message that differs.

What’s being spoken between the lines here, is traditional media still reeling from being replaced by social media by a whole generation. It just reminds me what a great balance CTNJ provides.

posted by: Joebigjoe | April 24, 2013  8:04pm

Did you see that you tube has removed some of the videos taken by people in Watertown of police in action removing people from homes? The police had a tough job that night but stories coming out now are not good. They didn’t mistreat anyone as far as we have heard but they may have gone overboard in some spots and social media showing this has been removed.