Tweeting a Tragedy: 5 Things to Remember When News Breaks

When news broke about the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last month, those on Twitter were some of the first to hear about death counts and momentum in the investigation. We all know Twitter is one of the best tools for engaging with a story, but as the news unfolded, so did the corrections. It’s a good time to reflect on some best practices for reporting on Twitter. As we come upon the one month anniversary mark for Sandy Hook and deal with new tragedies this week like the hostage situtation at a Los Angeles mall to a ferry accident in the East River, here are five things to keep in mind when big news breaks.

1. Facebook Is Not Your Friend

Most corrections resulted from faulty Facebook searches for the alleged shooter. Even as law enforcement insisted they had yet to confirm the identity of the shooter, news organizations like The Huffington Post, Gawker, Buzzfeed and even cable news organizations began posting pictures of Ryan Lanza. And they were all wrong.

Facebook has never been championed for its search capabilities. Despite the fact that Facebook’s speciality is connecting, it’s often easier to Google someone for their Facebook profile than it is to use the social network’s search bar. Even a simple search for your best friend’s rather particular name can turn up over three pages of results. You’re a reporter, not Sherlock Holmes. Use Facebook for clues, but don’t bet on the fact there is only one name per city when news breaks.

2. Read Your Retweets

We’ve written about the dangers of relying on retweets as a journalism strategy. But the fact that a lot of users are retweeting without clicking through doesn’t mean you should, too. News is breaking but take the time to read the articles before you click. Most times, the wrong information passes quicker than the correction. Retweet responsibly.

3. Monitor Like A Pro

A 2010 Yahoo study of tweets after the earthquake in China showed that there are ways to suss out misleading and false tweets. Until an algorithm and platform is created, they came up with 16 features that signify a “true” tweet. Here are some from the linked article above:

  •  Tweets about it tend to be longer and include URLs.
  • People tweeting it have higher follower counts.
  • Tweets about it are negative rather than positive in tone.
  • Tweets about it do not include question marks, exclamation marks and first or third person pronouns.

4. Remember Your Ethics Professor

It’s hard to do when news is breaking and your editor and followers are waiting for the latest. But tragedies like mass shootings are loaded issues. When you’re posting pictures of the scene, interviewing a kindergartner, or even using the word semi-automatic in a sentence, try to slow down. Rely on facts, link to the studies, and leave sensationalism to someone else.

5. Self Clean

We all make mistakes. When you do find out that something you or someone else posted or tweeted is wrong, post a correction immediately. Social media is perfect for breaking news; it’s also perfect for retracting it. Twitter has been heralded as a truth machine that we’re responsible for cleaning. Take the time to investigate someone’s bad link and correct yourself as soon as possible to maintain credibility. Hopefully you’re not doing it every hour, but your followers will thank you for it.