The Conversation Prism 4.0 by Brian Solis and JESS3
As election night approaches we, journalists, are reminded perhaps at little cynically of our many historical faux pas. Dewey defeats Truman is a classic 1948 example. Hillary Clinton beating Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary in New Hampshire is but another example. And I could go on. After all, media’s notorious missteps abound: here’s a roundup from 2013 by Craig Silverman at The Poynter Institute.
Of the many underlying reasons, the most conspicuous is a flawed fact-checking methodology and sometimes even an appalling lack of fact-checking. As more voters are using the internet as a campaign news source, social media offers a great opportunity to examine the real-world consequences of such journalistic shortcomings. Although the following analysis and recommendations apply to all social media, I’ll frequently mention Twitter because of its rather big appetite for viralizing false information.
That social media presents a journalist with some unique fact-checking challenges goes without saying, and it is not the purpose here to dwell on those challenges. The need “to balance accuracy and speed in a 24/7 news cycle”, as Mallary Jean Tenore put it, is ever present and especially demanding. But when in doubt speed should never trump accuracy – not now, not in a million years. Because the principles and ethics of journalism should not be dictated by the medium a journalist is writing for.
The high-velocity environment of social media makes it especially appealing to break the news first. Yet breaking the news first without due diligence can be devastating. As Jim Brady once tweeted: “if you’re right and first, no one remembers. If you’re first and wrong, everyone remembers.” And if you’re a major news outlet – say CNN – the effect can be quite dramatic.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” American politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said. As journalists, we can’t afford to be lax with facts – it is our burden to be relentless in pursuing and shedding light on facts. In the end, what kind of public service is journalism doing by serving up half-baked information? Who cares if your Twitter feed looks like Valhalla if the information you’re disseminating is wrong?
I hope it has become abundantly clear, by now, that our first priority as journalists is to get the facts right. What are, then, some social media strategies we can implement on this election night to make sure we don’t fall in the same traps our peers fell into?
It does help to have a social media policy set before election day. The policy should be based on a strong sense of what a journalist’s duty is on election night – and journalists should be discouraged from going rogue and calling races too fast – while also addressing the specific challenges presented by social media. The AP social media guidelines and their election night annex are a solid place to start.
Additionally, remember that common sense trumps all. Tweet responsibly. Fact-check everything: accounts, information, authenticity of photos … And when you make mistakes – because let’s not foul ourselves this is bound to happen at some point – make corrections and push out the corrections aggressively and strategically. Craig Silverman recommends that you “write human corrections, repeat them, help them spread, and match them to the channels you initially used.”
Finally, as you navigate through social media’s muddy waters please keep things into perspective: not everyone is on social media and Twitter’s reaction does not constitute public opinion.
If I have sounded like your mother egging you to eat your vegetables, it is because in a certain sense I was. Many of the things I have mentioned pertain, in fact, to journalism 101. And I haven’t said it all. I leave you with Liz Sidoti’s words to David Carr.
“I worry that reporters are so busy looking after the bells and whistles that they need on social media that they are not working as finders of fact, asking the though questions and doing the analysis.”