Navigating the Muddy Waters Between
Breaking News and Social Chatter
|Above: Whitney Houston, date unknown from WhitneyHouston.com|
Below: Images of 'tweets' announcing Houston's death taken from
My sources say Whitney Houston found dead in Beverly hills hotel.. Not in the news yet!!
omgg , my aunt tiffany who work for whitney houston just found whitney houston dead in the tub . such ashame & sad :-(
a story quoting a statement from Houston's publicist which confirmed that the troubled star had died, about an hour after the official time of death. (Source: Murphy, S: Twitter Breaks News of Whitney Houston's Death 27 Minutes Before Press. Marshable Entertainment, February 13, 2012)
This sequence of events begs the question: When did the news actually break?
Sadly, as it turns out, the story of Houston's untimely demise was true. But Journalism's history is filled with errors, exaggerations, speculation, inaccuracies, and stories that were simply not true. Unfortunately, you won't have to look very far to find glaring examples of such erroneous reporting.
|Head coach Joe Paterno at Bryant-Denny Stadium
on September 11, 2010 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. |
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Consider the recent death of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. It occurred on the heels of a scandal in which one of his assistant coaches- Jerry Sandusky- was indicted on allegations of decades of child molestation, some of which are alleged to have occurred on the Penn State campus. As the molestation story unfolded in the media, it was reported that another of Paterno's assistants witnessed at least one of the alleged incidents and reported it to the decades-long head coach. While Sandusky's case is pending, the stories of the allegations being made, the reports to Paterno and his failure to intervene, and Paterno's subsequent firing from Penn State were not only legitimate news stories, they were also BIG news stories.
|Mourner pay their last respects to Paterno on the Penn State Campus, January, 2012|
(Alex Brandon/Associated Press)
On January 22, 2012, a number of media outlets, including CBS Sports, The Huffington Post, and MSNBC.com broke the story of Paterno's death. The problem was that the breaking news came a full 12 hours before Paterno had actually died. Their error was compounded as the false story erupted into a feeding frenzy of thousands of re-posts on Facebook and Twitter. A post hoc analysis revealed that this series of erroneous reports originated with faulty journalism and inaccurate reporting on the part of Penn State's campus newspaper, Onward State. (Source: Stetler, B: Mistaken Early Report on Paterno Roiled Web New York Times Online, January 22, 2012.) When the story was challenged and corrected by Paterno's family, all of the media outlets involved backstepped their reports and issued apologetic retractions.
|Source: Matt Bors, downloaded February 15, 2012, from http://www.spjdc.org/node/13789|
The breaking of the stories of both Paterno's and Houston's deaths through social media channels illustrates the minefield that journalists must navigate when picking up a story from chatter on the web. Regardless of the medium- newspaper, magazine, television, radio, internet, or any other outlet- the basic principles of journalism still apply. When it comes to getting the story, "Accuracy- to get the facts and context of a story right- is a fundamental norm of ethical journalism." (Source: Salocito, K: Online Journalism Ethics- Speed and Accuracy. Center for Journalism and Ethics, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin, 2009) If Journalists want to be seen as distinctively different from everyone else on the web, the must distinguish themselves in the way they practice their profession.