Between a hoax about Scrubs star Zach Braff committing suicide and a staged “arrest” of a University of Memphis professor during a lecture on Internet piracy, it was a bad day for false news on Twitter.
But I’d say that at least from my little corner of the world, it was a good day for journalism.
We can’t stop the noise, the rumors and the lies anymore than we can stop the sun from rising. But journalists trained to view information with a skeptical eye and to verify everything they see or hear are vital in helping us to know what we can believe.
At least two of the 15 students in my reporting class were on Twitter when pictures surfaced of the professor being led away in handcuffs by the police. (I’ll leave aside for the moment that this is certainly a quite, er, dramatic way to put the fear in people re: downloading songs). I’m quite pleased to see them using Twitter as one tool to keep up with what is going on around campus and that they had the good news sense to know a story when they saw one. But I am much more proud of how they responded.
Beth Spencer and Jessica Grammer didn’t simply immediately retweet. Both of them asked other students questions about what happened via Twitter, and both sent messages to the Commercial Appeal, our metro daily, letting them know that it was just a hoax. Grammer even asked a student “how do you know that?”
[UPDATE: Spencer was also manning the student newspaper’s Twitter feed at the time. She did retweet some photos of the professor in handcuffs, but was immediately working on verifying and clarifying the story via her personal account, and then corrected the info via Helmsman feed. I think this still showed overall good journalistic judgment. In the web world, verification ideally occurs before publication, but it is also an ongoing process that new communication tools makes better and faster.]
A small and parochial victory no doubt, but I see it as a tiny battle in a bigger war.
I think that verifying information and, critically, being transparent with readers about that process, is crucial to the survival of journalism. It is even more important than ever in our age of always-on microblogging.
It is not something reserved only for professionals; “citizens” can verify information as well. However, I do think it pays to have some training or experience in journalism to become a good verifier. My experience from two years of teaching is that it is not inherently natural to most young people to double check things or to refuse to take information at face value. “Get it right” seems intuitive, but until a professor points out that your name and your integrity (and your grade) are on the line and gives you some tools to do it well, I think you have a tendency to a little bit more gullible about things you see and hear.
Some may bemoan that rumors can now spread so far and fast, but to me, when they can be corrected just as quickly a more open and participatory culture is still a net gain.