Check it out

Social media and the rush to be first muddies the accuracy of news

The hoax perpetrated on the Associated Press this week is a wake-up call, not just for the media but for the nation.

Someone hacked into an AP Twitter account and tweeted an alarming, but completely false, report on Tuesday of two bombings at the White House that had supposedly injured President Obama.

Again, the report was an absolute concoction. But since it appeared to come from the Associated Press, the “news” rattled the stock market, which temporarily fell 143 points after the fake report. Markets recovered nicely, but the reaction is as disturbing as the bogus story.

It’s truly frightening that our financial sector, and perhaps others as well, are so vulnerable to phony-baloney news reports.

Being in the news business, we know well, and are sympathetic to, both the value and the danger of breaking news. We also know that everyone wants to be first. And today’s social media platforms allow us to circumvent traditional filters to get immediate word to the public about breaking events.

Being first can be overrated, though – while being right can be undervalued.

News agencies across the country will have to evaluate whether the benefit of “tweeting” breaking news is worth the risk.

Everyone with a smart phone or computer, obviously, should consider slowing down and rethinking what they’re putting out in social media. Celebrities, politicians and others in the limelight almost have a routine down: Tweet, then apologize. A Google News search pulls up a number of such stories.

But news agencies have a special obligation to get it right.

In this case, AP did nothing wrong, and in fact was a victim; it had its Twitter account hijacked. Maybe the policy needs to be no breaking news via social media – and perhaps the policy needs to be publicized, so everyone knows to take tweets and posts with a grain of salt.

The caution involves more than social media, though. CNN’s John King apologized this week for bad information aired last week that indicated a Boston bombing suspect had been arrested, when that wasn’t the case at all. Other media outlets went with the bad information too.

There’s an adage in the news business, from the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago, that said, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Likewise, if you see something atwitter on Twitter, check that out too.

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