Social Media Falsely Accused in Spread of KPRC’s Dead Bodies Report

By Andrew Gauthier 

It was a story with the type of intrigue that triggers thousands of retweets: last Tuesday, Houston’s KPRC tweeted that dozens of bodies had been found at a location in rural Texas.

Spurred on by tweets from @BreakingNews and @nytimes, the story bounced around the internet on Tuesday afternoon. But in the end the police, acting on a tip from a psychic, didn’t end up finding any bodies.

The speed at which the eventual non-story traveled around the world gave many pause as they considered the responsibilities that news outlets have in using their Twitter and Facebook accounts to share developing stories. “Even in this age of intense competition and instant reporting,” wrote NPR blogger Mark Memmott, “it’s important for news outlets to remember that they should stick to what they know, not what they think on stories like this.”

While it’s true that many organizations used second-hand information and incomplete details in reporting the story via social media, the problem of misinformation appears not to have arisen online but rather through a decidedly old school means of communication.

Speaking with Mashable, here’s how KPRC news director Deborah Collura described what led to the station’s tweet heard ’round the world:

The way the event unfolded… was probably around 3:30, 3:45 in our newsroom, we received a call from the Liberty County Sheriff’s Department — and that would be the PIO, the person we get our information from — saying that there was a report of 25 to 30 bodies that had been found on the County Road 2048, County Road 2049, and that police were on the way to the scene.

So KPRC was going on direct word from the Sheriff’s public information officer in reporting that bodies had been found, information that the station relayed in its tweet.

In defending the work of his unit, Capt. Evans discussed the impact that social media had on the case with Mashable:

You can disseminate any information you want. The problem with that is people, or some people, don’t perhaps stop and think what they are releasing or putting out there could actually be harmful to someone else. And it certainly slowed us down and impaired our investigation for a timely manner, due to the fact we were dealing with so much of a media onslaught, if you will. And that certainly slowed us down in our efforts.

The kicker here is that Evans is the sherrif’s public information officer. It was his phone call to KPRC that led to all of the coverage.