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Jumping the Gun with 140 Characters

Posted At: September 12, 2013 7:30 a.m.
by Jessica Chambers

Twitter can be the media’s best friend or worst nightmare. With a single click, information can be spread to the masses. However, the use of Twitter can also backfire and damage a news outlet’s credibility.

With more than 500 million active tweeters, Twitter is the perfect place to advertise businesses, send out small news blurbs or obtain user opinions. Many news outlets use Twitter to cover breaking news, which can either be very helpful or destructive.

When the April 27, 2011, tornado devastated Tuscaloosa, Ala., power was out, homes were destroyed and lives were lost. Scared and confused, people were still able to communicate through Twitter by relaying what they had seen or posting pictures of the devastation.

Tuscaloosa News journalists were able to give accurate and real-time updates to residents and readers around the world through Twitter. They beat first responders to some of the affected areas thanks to tweets from followers. The National Guard even relied on tweets from the Tuscaloosa News journalists to determine where to deploy troops.

During a time of chaos, The Tuscaloosa News provided coverage of areas that other media outlets were not able to reach due to the damage. The journalists’ enterprising use of Twitter led them to a Pulitzer Prize.

However, news outlets don’t always give the correct information. Such inaccuracy can lead to confusion and in some cases, damage the reputation of individuals not related to the story.

Meet Ryan Lanza. Lanza was a regular guy who was at work when the Sandy Hook shooting occurred, minding his own business. Later that day, CNN released Lanza’s name as the shooter for one of the largest school shootings in the United States. Twitter users went wild, aiming vicious tweets at him. He was forced to defend himself against the false allegations.

CNN finally corrected the error, but not before an innocent man’s reputation was marred. The inaccuracy made people question if they could trust the news source. We all wanted to know immediately what was going on and who committed this heinous crime. But, was it worth it to CNN to lose credibility for releasing the wrong information? I think the public would have rather waited another hour for the correct information than to be misled.

The media use Twitter as a way to spark conversations and unite the world. But, before news outlets send out breaking news tweets, they need to check their sources. CNN could take a few pointers from The Tuscaloosa News. The Lanza incident wasn’t just a typo but a factual error that should have never happened. Being the first to report something should not take precedence over accuracy, and I hope the media remembers this ethical standard in the future.

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