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Apr 1 / Neri Stein

Social media makes publishing quickly—and making mistakes—easy

A lot of mistakes happen when you work too quickly. Just ask anyone who showed up on the Marquette campus last week expecting a press conference announcing Shaka Smart as the new men’s basketball coach.

Or anyone at the New York Post, which reported that a body found in a ditch was that of former NBA player Quinton Ross, when in fact it was someone else with the same name.

We all know media has changed and journalists have had to adapt the way we do things. With the rise of Twitter and other social media platforms, everyone is a reporter, including journalism students, and the need to be first has become almost as important as being right.

These days, everything moves at ludicrous speed. But that’s not as bad as it sounds, even when mistakes happen.

It used to be a deadline that would pressure a reporter into a good story, but the meaning of deadline has changed entirely, as has what makes a good story.

The negative is that social media, Twitter in particular, has made making mistakes much easier than it used to be. But it’s also made it easier to correct those mistakes, and to do so speedily. And because of the competition, we don’t always have the luxury of taking our time. But working on a deadline is nothing new for journalists.

Checking our sources and facts is still as important as it always has been, and social media has only expedited the fact-checking process.

If you see a tweet saying Player X has been traded to Team Y, don’t jump right into your article about what it means. Check who tweeted the news first. Then check who else is tweeting the news. Information spreads quickly on Twitter so it shouldn’t take long for better-known reporters to back up the original source.

However, even if the news is reported by legitimate sources, you can still be wrong (see: Quinton Ross). Just as in any article you write, you need to do more than check your spelling. You need to re-check your facts. This is extremely important when covering breaking news as the news could change in a few minutes.

With the pace of social media ever quickening, it won’t take long to discover if that tweet from Adam Schefter is from the real Adam Schefter. Moreover, if the first person reporting a new coaching hire is a name you are completely unfamiliar with and can find no record of online, it’s a good bet you should back off.

Just because the Twitter account has the picture you’re looking for and the word “official,” that doesn’t mean you’re done checking, as plenty of people learned from this mock CNN account that claimed Malaysian Airlines plane “MH350″ had been found.

Most importantly, social media has brought us closer to our audience. And that audience is swift to praise the ones who get the news out first and also to hold us accountable when we fail to do so.

If the media is the fourth estate, social media is now the fifth. If you make a mistake in an article or a tweet, a rabid fan base will let you know about it and quickly. But it’s nice to have more than just a few editors keeping us on our toes, isn’t it?

And if that doesn’t motivate you to get it done right and quickly, nothing can.

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See also:

B/R Attribution Guidelines

Playbook: Attribution and Hyperlinks chapter

B/R Blog posts on “Accuracy”

  • Howard Ruben

    Excellent piece. May I point out that your reference to “Malaysian Airlines plane “MH350″ is inaccurate? The flight number is 370. We all make mistakes and, you are correct, in today’s fast-paced media world, we must check and check again for accuracy. The biggest change I see is that journalists used to have at least one copy editor reviewing their story before it went “live” or “to bed”. That’s not the case when it comes to social media reporting. Which means we all must be great writers and even better editors.

  • Howard Ruben

    Just to clarify, the reference I made to flight MH350 was not your mistake. Thanks again for a spot-on piece.