Tweeting tragedy

It is now widely accepted that the first stories and images to emerge from natural or main made disasters are more likely to come from citizen journalists using social media tools than from professional journalists. After all, there are more than a billion people in the world who now have the capability to shoot videos, take pictures, write stories and share them with the world.  

Sometimes, the product produced by amateur journalists can make history.  The murder of Neda Agha Soltan by Iranian police was recorded on a camera phone during anti-government demonstrations in Tehran last June, and quickly became a symbol of the brutality of the Iranian regime.  

Her story has now become the subject of a documentary broadcast on the PBS series Frontline, but without that original cellphone video, her death would have passed unnoticed outside of Iran.

So it is not surprising that when a U.S. Army Major opened fire on his fellow soldiers in Fort Hood Texas earlier this month, some of the first news of the incident arrived via Twitter. But those first tweets have sparked an interesting debate that highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of using social media for reporting breaking news, and the challenges for mainstream media outlets in knowing what to do with the information they find on social media.

The controversy began with a scathing post at TechCrunch by former Guardian technology columnist Paul Carr, with the provocative title “After Fort Hood, Another Example of How ‘Citizen Journalists’ Can’t Handle the Truth.”

The object of Carr’s ire was a soldier named Tearah Moore.  She was based at Ford Hood, and happened to be inside the hospital (though not on duty) when the soldiers wounded and killed by the gunman, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, were being brought in to the emergency ward.   

And like any good citizen journalist under those circumstances, Moore began to tweet about what she was seeing. Her information was picked up by some bloggers, and several mainstream media outlets were quick to try to establish contact with her (though none actually published her stories or pictures).

The problem, according to Paul Carr, was that some of the information she was tweeting was insensitive and inappropriate (she posted a picture of someone who “got shot in the balls”) and some of it was incorrect (she erroneously reported that there was more than one gunman, and that Major Hasan had been killed).  

This led Carr to conclude that “for all its sound and fury, citizen journalism once again did nothing but spread misinformation at a time when thousands of people with family at the base would have been freaking out already, and breach the privacy of those who had been killed or wounded.” 

Not surprisingly, fans of social media quickly rose up to attack Carr’s analysis.  “His main assertions are unsupported by the facts, his interpretation riddled with holes, and his straw men pathetically easy to demolish,” proclaimed blogger Suw Charman-Anderson.

Charman-Anderson pointed out that the mainstream media frequently peddles misinformation and violates privacy. And indeed, in the confusing hours after the shooting at Fort Hood, many mainstream outlets reported that the gunman had been shot to death.  

According to Charman-Anderson, the fact that some people use social tools in foolish ways is no reason to dismiss the usefulness of social media or citizen journalism. “This is not a reflection on social tools so much as it is a reflection of human nature,” she concluded.    

This same argument was raised in a debate between Paul Carr and social media maven Jeff Jarvis on radio station WYNC in New York City. “The internet is messy,” Jarvis told Carr, “but you want it to be packaged and filtered.”
The internet is indeed messy, and it cannot be packaged and filtered. And that is precisely why mainstream journalists must handle it with care. Paul Carr’s assertion that citizen journalists “can’t handle the truth,” is clearly an over-statement.

Amateurs are here to stay, and as they have demonstrated in Iran and elsewhere, they have a useful role to play. But what happened at Fort Hood is a reminder of the important differences between the mainstream (News 1.0) and citizen journalism (News 2.0).

Mainstream journalists are hard-wired to want to be first with a big breaking news story. But it’s hard to compete with blogs and citizen journalism sites that don’t need to verify information before posting it.  In a News 1.0 world, journalists have been trained it is better to be right than first, and it would be unfortunate, and ultimately very damaging, if that important principle was abandoned in a race to compete with citizen journalists like Tearah Moore.