While “24/7 news” television networks covered the White House Correspondents dinner this past Saturday, many turned to Twitter to find out what was happening in Baltimore. I spent the better part of the last several nights watching the unrest there unfold through photos, live streams, video clips and Facebook posts and tweets. The pool of media available from eyewitnesses seems to grow with every major event. Who needs cable news when 64 percent of American adults and 85 percent of young adults now own a reporting device, better known as a smartphone.
But how informed are we really by these glimpses? Is there enough context? Who do we trust when the information is potentially coming from those who have a vested interest in a cause? We have to wrestle with some of these questions when dealing with members of the mainstream media already, but their reputation often precedes them, putting the information shared in perspective. How do you apply that to a random internet handle that just popped into your feed? Most importantly, now that we are all able to engage in citizen journalism, what responsibility do we have to get it right?
As someone who spends a good deal of time trying to sort out the signal through the noise of social media, my main focus is on observing rather than sharing. It’s very alluring to want to take a piece of seemingly newsworthy information and instantly share it. If you’re not a journalist, you’ve got less at stake to toss it back out there without concern for your reputation to take a hit. But sending misinformation out into the world can be harmful no matter how many followers you have. The more people who retweet a false fact, the harder it is to debunk and get to the truth.
Some people suggest a very easy solution to this: never tweet. This is a refrain mostly offered up by journalists sick of seeing Twitter become an instant race to Snarktown the moment any news breaks. It’s not just misinformation that can be harmful, but also tweets and posts that jump straight to humor for want of being quick to the joke. But this is too pat a solution, and one that eliminates the potential for you to be a productive part of a news event. It’s also just unrealistic; it’s the equivalent of abstinence education. You are going to tweet. But you can take steps to do so responsibly.
Much of what journalists do to validate and find news on social media can be useful to even passive Twitter users, so I’m going share some best practices here. If you’re a news hound, these tips will help you maximize the potential of social media to get you the raw facts. But even if you’re a more casual observer you can be a better, more reliable part of a breaking news conversation by keeping in mind three things: time, curiosity and context.