Traditional news outlets have continually raced with their competitors to be the first to report on breaking stories. Today the monopoly of news reporting has been broken by the proliferation of social media and independent blogs, and citizen journalists with mobile phones will likely be the first on the scene of breaking news.
Just before 9p.m. on Sunday, August 28, panic spread through the Los Angeles Airport. A tweet about gunshots first appeared at 8:48 p.m. For almost an hour, confusion emanated from all sources.
Imagine viewing Sam Macon’s 8:59 pm video tweet of the chaos on the footpath outside departures.
If you were near the Los Angeles Airport, you might be tempted to seek cover and hide, and if you were somewhere else, you’d worry for those caught in the mêlée.
By 9:18 p.m. social media offered an indication that the reports of a shooter were false; although it was another 30 minutes before even a hint of an official all clear was shared via twitter, thanks to a local journalist who was not even at the airport. Fifteen minutes later the police followed with an official tweet confirming no shooting had occurred.
In this particular instance, social media held multiple roles, in addition to spreading first hand accounts of events, it also conceivably fanned flames of unnecessary panic. According to Los Angeles World Airports’ media statement concerning this incident, the public was responsible for spreading inaccurate reports of a shooter through word-of-mouth and social media.
Twitter is a social network that is well suited for sharing as-it-happens events with the world, but real-time posts lack editors, filters and methods of verification. Additionally, live tweets offer only snippets of a story, often lacking perspective and alternative points of view. When drawing our news feeds from the raw, unedited world of social media, there will be events that are shared which barely reflect reality. For observers at a safe distance, even dangerous news environments present merely as a captivating story. For those caught up in the action, the events may be unfolding with a genuine element of risk.
In the immediacy of live events, it is almost impossible to determine the legitimacy of an individual tweet. Did a social media post originate from an eyewitness or just someone remotely trying to join in the discussion? This does not mean that social media isn’t a valuable journalistic tool, but its broad reach amplifies positives and negatives. Today everyone is an eyewitness and more and more people are reaching out through social media.
Is repeating an inaccurate tweet, although well intentioned, like shouting fire in a crowded theatre? What firsthand news events have you shared on social media? How did your understanding of the story evolve when you learned more about the story the next day?