Mainstream news outlets would like you to believe that their journalistic integrity makes their news more trustworthy, factual, and worthwhile than that of their social media counterparts. If social media reporting makes it impossible for these organizations to be first with the news, sometimes they rely on another traditional mainstream media strength — research — to find unique angles to the story. Even still, the urge to be first, or provide an original take on the news, sometimes overshadows the imperative to be correct.
Case in point: the recent scramble by ABC News to report the backstory of Aurora, Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes. In a segment on ABC’s Good Morning America, news correspondent Brian Ross suggested that the shooter, “Jim Holmes” had a connection to the Colorado Tea Party political movement. It’s unclear what this supposed association was meant to imply, but the point was moot. It later turned out that it was a different Jim Holmes — not the Aurora suspect — who was, in fact, connected to the Colorado Tea Party.
Scorn and ridicule for the network came almost immediately — from other mainstream media outlets and from the social media community at large. ABC News President Ben Sherwood eventually made a public apology for the mistake and confirmed “steps are being made” to make sure this type of reporting error does not happen again.
If the reporter or his staff had done some basic fact checking before rushing to air unconfirmed assumptions, the damage that was done to the ABC News organization (and to Brian Ross himself) could have been completed avoided.
In response to erroneous rumors that he had died, Mark Twain once famously remarked: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Even today, reporters (and citizen journalists) often jump to false conclusions and prematurely report the deaths of celebrities, even though they are still very much alive.
For example, in December 2011 a prank blog called Global Associated News reported that actor Scott Baio (of Happy Days fame) had died in a jet-skiing accident. This report was a deliberate hoax, but news of Baio’s “death” soon went viral on Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps taking a cue from the overwhelming global outpouring of grief after the death of Michael Jackson, millions of people inadvertently participated in the Baio hoax by tweeting and retweeting that the actor had died.
When Baio caught wind of his Twitter obituary, he was understandably upset. He even furiously remarked on Twitter that some of his family members had become distraught when they read about the news of his death on Twitter.
Whenever you’re moved by a story you see on social media, take a moment to confirm the facts before you pass this information along to your followers. The time you invest will not only make your information more accurate, it may also alleviate unnecessary grief or embarrassment from people who aren’t so fastidious about checking their facts.