I just got off the phone with Bob Garfield of On the Media talking about the shooting in Connecticut and the discussion that ensued on Twitter around an account alleged to be that of the shooter. He called me because I screwed up — and particularly because I am a journalist and journalism professor who screwed up.
After the shooting, I followed the trail of many on Twitter to an account that was written by a person of the same name that had been broadcast on TV news as that of the shooter. It was eerie reading and I said just that. I did not use the name of the person or the name of the account because I knew better: these facts could change. But then I also foolishly did not include a conditional statement in my tweet: I did not say “if this is the account of the killer, then…” Or I did not say this was the “alleged” or “reputed” account of the person named as the killer. These are basic, basic journalistic skills drilled until they are reflexes and I would use them in any story for print. I didn’t use them online. That was wrong. We don’t learn these things as journalists just to cover ourselves or to sound like journalists. We learn them because the key skill of the journalist is to say what we do *not* know and to make that clear. That is the essence of credibility.
I immediately tweeted that I should have added the conditional statement. I then erased the single tweet, which I hate doing because one should not try to eliminate the record. But on Twitter, there is no way to amend or correct a tweet — a fundamental structural problem, I think, but I’m not shifting blame to Twitter — and so it could continue to be retweeted and passed around.
As you know by now, it soon was reported that the original name was wrong. A person by that name was being questioned and his brother was identified in the press as the killer. Though as I write this, the police have still not verified either. So caveats still apply. And I am not using the names still.
Also, as this proceeded, the Twitter account associated with the first name got new tweets. That is apparent evidence that it was the wrong account. But even that is not foolproof as one can send delayed tweets. So nothing is certain. That is the important lesson.
Bob Garfield wanted me to shrug and say oops — such is news. I wouldn’t do that. Yes, this is news and we’ve all — not just journalists but also everyone who ever watches a breaking story on TV and now on the net — learned that facts change. But it was wrong. Bob also wanted me to blame haste. But I wouldn’t do that, either, for by that argument, one would need to wait hours, days, weeks, or even longer before reporting any facts and clearly that’s not going to happen.
No, we always need to be as diligent as possible about verifying facts — and listening to TV news, I’ve learned, is not sufficient. That includes now not just journalists but those who spread what they hear from journalists via Twitter, Facebook, et al. We need to be careful about saying what we don’t know or how we know what we’re saying. Those attributions and caveats are important. I left them out of my tweet. That was wrong, especially for me. I am sharing this here both to share the lesson. I’m sorry.
: LATER: Looking at Twitter reaction, I want to be clear that I’m not blaming Twitter’s length; I could have fit an attribution and caveat in the tweet.