The flood of misinformation after yesterday’s shooting at the Washington Navy Yard was striking and disturbing. Initial reports were that there were three gunmen, a second shooting at another military facility and a suspect who turned out to be wrong. In fact, all of that was wrong.
How did this happen and why does it keep happening? It’s a natural outcome of a volatile mix – police scanners + social media. It made me think about the new (and disturbing) news mantra – “I’d rather be first than right.” And, in this case, the “first” came right from the “horse’s mouth” – the police. Or rather police scanners. Today, anyone can listen to a scanner through his or her smartphone. They listen, they tweet and the next thing you know social media’s ablaze with a bucket of misinformation that sends folks into a frenzy.
Reporters have always had access to those scanners, but they have also have had the ability and experience to apply their journalistic smarts to verify what they hear. They were the gatekeepers; the sense-makers; the three-source confirmers. Today, they are simply not allowed to be any of those things when the initial news breaks. The marketplace tells them to report first, confirm second and correct when you have to. And, to quote Paul Farhi’s article in the Washington Post, “The confusion is amplified by a hypercompetitive news environment and social media tools that turn anyone with a Twitter or Vine account into a reporter.”
It’s happened before: the Newtown shooter was initially reported to be Ryan Lanza (Adam Lanza’s brother); folks panicked in Boston after “news” of a “third” explosion at the JFK library followed initial reports of the Marathon bombing and the stock market plunged as “news” of an attack on the White House that injured the president.
I love my smartphone. Truth be told, I sleep with it next to my bed. But it sometimes lies to me. I, like other news junkies, need to learn to ignore the first three breathless news bites and wait for the real journalists to apply their news smarts to a story before believing it.