Responsible reporting in the age of social media: where does the line lie?

Two different twitter feeds rolled on two devices this afternoon, as I tried to balance my personal horror at the explosions at the Boston Marathon and my professional responsibility to report on what had happened. Conflicting reports clamored for attention as I kept one eye on my personal account @eschumer and the other on my newspaper’s account, @springvilleny, which I am responsible for monitoring. Death tolls rose and fell, depending on who you read. Cell service was shut down, or it wasn’t. A fire at the JFK library was related, or it wasn’t, or no one knew or wanted to say. CNN said one thing. Fox News said another. Anonymous News said yet another, and many users were retweeting with abandon, not sure what to believe or wanting to be the first to break the story.

That’s where journalism on social media gets tricky. I think the impulse to tell each other what we know begins on the playground, or earlier. How many of us rush to the phone or the computer, the second we hear something new? Why do gossip mags stay in business? I want to think this instinct is altruistic, that twitter lit up this afternoon so we could all band together to figure out what happened, so we could support those who needed it and get to the bottom of the story, together. I don’t know if I believe that, but my human spirit wants to think it’s true.

Twitter broke the news of the explosions long before the traditional media did. Almost as soon as it happened, users took to social media to share what they knew, reach out to loved ones and share images of the scene. As for my own feeds, I chose which retweets and photos I shared judiciously. People are grievously injured. At least two people (at press time) are dead. If my blood were all over the sidewalk, I wouldn’t want it all over the internet, too. There’s such a hair-thin line between information sharing and rumor-mongering.

As a journalist, it’s my responsibility to tread that line with the utmost sensitivity, something so many social media users forget, at times like this. So many tweeters, especially, rushed to RT all the information they had, without stopping to think about its credibility. The source it came from. There’s a downside to such quick newsgathering: false information can spread like wildfire, and once it’s gone, it’s difficult or impossible to grab back. Al Jazeera did a quick compilation story about that very issue, which I hope gets expanded, as time goes on.

So today, I spent my afternoon on twitter and facebook, sharing the sources I trust, as a journalist, on both of the feeds I control. Not because I want to self-select which news I read, but because I think the fourth estate has a responsibility not to sacrifice quality reporting in the name of speed, even when speed is important.

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