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Breaking news, according to Twitter

South America | Media Ethics

[Leer en español.]

THERE ISN'T A NEWSROOM in the world, whether it be in print, television, radio or digital media, where this debate is not raging: When is it appropriate to publish what appears on Twitter? 

The phenomenon of social networks is a profound challenge to mass media.  In Chile, on September 2, a terrible airplane accident occurred in the Juan Fernandez islands, some 400 miles off Chile's coast. The archipelago became famous for Robinson Crusoe island immortalized in Daniel Defoe's book of the same name.Felipe Camiroaga

Twenty-one people perished in the sea, among them Chile's most famous TV host, Felipe Camiroaga.  Also lost were his crew of four reporters and videographers; businessman Felipe Cubillos, who headed an organization dedicated to earthquake and tsunami reconstruction; government functionaries from the Ministry of Culture; and personnel from the Chile Air Force. 

What followed was a tidal wave of information on Facebook and Twitter that the media either failed or did not know how to manage well. 

In a matter of minutes, social media reported three deaths, speculated about the list of passengers and even offered guesses on the cause of the crash.  And the media began to report these claims.  Twitter and Facebook suddenly became the primary competition for mass media and, at the same time, they transformed into the primary source of information for mass media.  The media's fact-checking processes, however, were not able to keep up with the speed of social media.

A daily paper with national circulation and digital properties (the same news organization where I work) announced that there were 21 deaths before there was an official confirmation. 

The pressure from Twitter, especially, was ferocious.  Everything about this breaking news event was ratcheted up given the high profiles of the crash victims, especially the famous TV personality. 

That daily paper and its website were immediately the target of acid-tongued criticism, and the hashtag #lunypublimentro (the names of both media platforms) became a national trending topic.  The cyber-harassment grew to a fever pitch, and both media platforms were eventually forced to publicly issue apologies. 

This phenomenon is still so new that we have yet to establish norms and rules for it.  But it is at this point that one of the news business' oldest rules is more useful than ever: Don't publish rumors. Investigate them. 

And precisely because Twitter has no such rules, everything that appears there is, by definition, a rumor. 

The danger is that media will succumb to the vertigo of the tremendous demands of creating online information and will fail to use the tested tools that good journalism requires: to check and verify sources and data. 

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