A Gentle Reminder To Check Your Sources

on Monday, Apr. 15th

It’s a bad day.

On days like this we all–and I’m counting myself amongst the “we all”–have a tendency to share information on social media before it is verified. Twitter and Facebook are biased towards sharing before full understanding is reached. These social networks reward speed over accuracy.

For those who follow the events in real time, corrections often appear swiftly. Those of us who are riding the edge of the news wave understand this. We accept that there is chaos and confusion. It’s part of the business.

However there is a major unintended consequence to “tweet first, verify second” behavior. This comes from the fact that social media is actually an atemporal, asynchronous medium. It only appears to be real time. A tweet or status update posted at 1:00 may be corrected by 1:01, but it may very well be the first update that gets spread the most.

This happens with news agencies as trusted as the Associated Press. There’s no shame in it. However we can do better during crises. (I’m writing this as a reminder to myself as much as I am writing it for you.)

* Check for a second source, not referencing the first. I did this at the start, hoping against hope that some jerk had hacked The Boston Globe’s twitter account. I wish that’s all this was.

* Check the timestamp. If there isn’t one, run a quick search before reposting. The situation on the ground may have changed/the facts may have been corrected. This is what happened with the AP’s reporting that the cellphone service in Boston had been shut down to prevent remote detonations. Not true, but that information is being repeated an hour later as fact.

* Consider the source. Some news agencies just have their stuff more together than others.

We’re all news editors on days like this. It’s better to be a little slow and to help filter out misinformation than it is to play news anchor.

I goofed on the Patriot’s Day angle when I saw a Time reporter’s tweet that the OKC bombing was on Patriot’s Day back in 1995. Actually it was on the anniversary of the Waco incident, which itself was on Patriot’s Day in 1993. The date of the holiday moves around, but is always on the third Monday of April.

As Abby Ohlheiser of Slate clarifies:

The speculation about Patriot’s Day’s significance was undoubtedly inspired by the fact that this week does contain a number of unhappy anniversaries: the Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995), the Waco assault (April 19, 1993), the Columbine school shooting (April 20, 1999), and the Virginia Tech massacre (April 16, 2007), for starters. Two of those tragedies—the Virginia Tech massacre and the Waco assault—were on Monday, the Patriot’s Day of those years.

We may–emphasize may–find that there was significance to the date for symbolic reasons in the coming hours/days/weeks. It may also turn out to be mere coincidence. That someone who wanted to hurt a lot of people in Boston would choose the marathon doesn’t come as that much of a surprise.

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