True or False? as Newsrooms Compete against the Speed of Social Media, Journalists Must Remember to Report the Facts First

By Tornoe, Rob | Editor & Publisher, February 2015 | Go to article overview

True or False? as Newsrooms Compete against the Speed of Social Media, Journalists Must Remember to Report the Facts First


Tornoe, Rob, Editor & Publisher


Back in December, New York magazine ran a story about Stuyvesant High School senior Mohammed Islam, who was rumored to have earned Wall Street investment returns upwards of $72 million (Business Insider included him on a list of "20 Under 20" back in 2013). Editors thought so highly of Islam's investment judgment they put him No. 12 in its annual "Reasons to Love New York" issue.

Just one problem--it was all made up. As Islam would later confess to the New York Observer, the only real link he has to the world of finance is running an investment club that simulates trades at his high school. He's earned exactly zero dollars on Wall Street.

It's been a tough couple of months for fact-checking. Rolling Stone was forced to retract a story about a rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. Boston.com had to pull a story that accused Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman of sending a racist email to an employee at a local Chinese restaurant. Even a Florida woman who purported to have three breasts turned out to be a complete hoax.

So, what's going on? Is there a growing problem with pushing out stories before they're properly vetted?

Craig Silverman, a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, thinks the issue is a big skills gap among journalists when it comes to fact checking. Before the explosion of social media, a reporter had the time to verity the story before it became public. Now, websites like Facebook and Twitter are making everything public instantly, before it can be verified, forcing newsrooms to play catch-up.

"Thanks to social media, photos, video and news stories are already out there," said Silverman. "Unfortunately, the reaction in many newsrooms isn't 'let's stop and see if it's true,' it's let's put it up and get traffic since it's already out.'"

For a digital expert, Silverman has some pretty old-school advice to dish out to today's journalists: Assume it's not true.

"It all goes back to the basic training of being a journalist--remaining skeptical, finding the source, corroborating it with other sources," Silverman said. "It really gets down to two core elements--source and content."

Silverman points back to October 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. A photo of soldiers being pounded by the storm as they stood guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was widely shared across social media, and eventually picked up by major news outlets. Even though it was a real photo of the soldiers snapped by photographer Karin Markert, it had been taken in September, a month before Hurricane Sandy hit.

"One of the most difficult challenges is picking up a photo or a video gaining momentum on social media and getting back to the source," said Silverman.

Claire Wardle, also a research fellow at the Tow Center, suggests four key elements for journalists to check or confirm before sharing a piece of user-generated content: provenance, source, date and location.

The irony of all this is the Internet, the very thing that's putting pressure on journalists to push stories out faster and faster, is also the greatest tool in the history of the media to check facts. Here are five simple tools that could help with verifying stories:

Google Maps: Really? The first on my list? …

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