Sign up for PM Award Updates!

Navy Yard Shootout and Navigating the Social Media

September 18, 2013

Hypercompetitive news networks and social media racing to report as events unfolded at the shootout at the Navy Yard in Washington DC yesterday that left 13 dead, added to the confusion by misreporting the incident, says the Washington Post.

But according to a commentary in the newspaper that is not unusual. Writing on the coverage of the Navy Yard incident, the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012 and the Boston Marathon bombing in April this year, Paul Farhi says, “Mistaken reporting on big, breaking events has become almost standard in the social-media age.”
But the problem is not desperate reporters covering fast-evolving events concocting details to make a good story. It is that they have to rely on sources such as the police who are also constrained by only a partial view of events.
“Reporters are no better than their sources, and as sources, police scanners aren’t very reliable. Although they are often the first public reports of a police or other public safety agency’s response, scanner conversations usually contain numerous uncertainties in the fog of breaking events,” Farhi writes.


While hypercompetitive media might transmit misleading information, uncritical consumers too are partly to blame. “‘People on Twitter take it for granted that [scanner chatter] is real and confirmed,’ said Mark E. Brady, public information officer for the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. It’s not, he says. Reporting on such preliminary data, without official confirmation, “is asking for trouble,” said Farhi.
The question of trolling through and making sense of an avalanche of tweets and other material emanating from professional as well as citizen journalists covering a rapidly-moving story is the subject of a recent set of articles in the Nieman Report, published by Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.
In an article Organize the Noise: Tweeting Live from the Boston Manhunt Seth Mnookin and Hong Qu, write about the judgements journalists have to make when following breaking news. Written in a style that brings out their proximity to events, Mnookin, a is co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and Qu, a 2013 Nieman fellow at Harvard, try to guide readers on understanding how twitter could be judiciously used in the coverage incidents like the manhunt.     
“During the manhunt, I used Keepr to identify reliable sources who appeared to be tweeting from the scene. I used four factors as indicators of credibility: disclosure of location, preferably via geocoding (Taylor Dobbs had activated the geocoding feature on his iPhone Twitter app that night, but Seth had not), multiple source verification (the tweets cited information from primary as well as other sources), original pictures or video, and accuracy over time,” writes Qu.
The Spring 2013 Nieman Report has a special section on the coverage of the Boston manhunt by social media that brings out challenges and reflections on how this relatively new reporting tool could be innovatively deployed.
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.