While I generally disconnect from my phone and computer during class, Monday afternoon was an exception. Though the lecture in question was interesting and delivered by one of my favorite professors, my attention was directed to the tragic news coming out of Boston. I wasn’t watching CNN or reading content from The New York Times, but rather refreshing a Twitter feed to learn tragic developments. I favor traditional media, so my experience Monday afternoon was educational as well as upsetting — while there is much promise in digesting news via social media, doing so lends itself to misinformation and prejudice.
Unlike in times past, my first instinct was to turn to Twitter after the first reports of something awry at the Boston Marathon. News media sources had little in the way of information, but Twitter delivered instantaneous updates filtered to include only the most popular posts. Prevailing reports made clear that at least two bombs exploded, and graphic eyewitness accounts of the carnage were oft-repeated. Thanks to Twitter, I was able to instantly read firsthand reports of citizen journalists that in many cases, constituted the basis of traditional media reports — albeit after nerve-wrecking delays.
But the ease with which we can share and access news via social media is also a dangerous shortfall. In Ithaca, I had no way of delineating genuine firsthand reports from misstated or deliberately falsified information. Take, for example, news surrounding events at the JFK Library on Monday: For every report that a third bomb had exploded, there was a report that there was actually a mechanical room fire. Some “sources” then switched back and forth between positions before admitting ambiguities and, only later, qualifying that indeed, a fire had taken place. Perhaps more alarmingly, many shared reports that a Saudi national had been arrested in connection with the attacks, when actually no such arrest was made. Sifting through tweets with constantly changing facts and experiencing painstaking emotions by the minute was actually more challenging than waiting for confirmed facts from established news sources.
Of course, traditional news media sources have also fallen victim to our need for immediate information. With dangerous ease, reputable sources took unconfirmed Twitter reports as facts and published possibly erroneous and misleading stories. The pressure to release news as quickly as possible is not new or confined to circumstances involving social media. Let us not forget that CNN broadcast the incorrect verdict of last summer’s landmark Supreme Court healthcare verdict for 10 minutes, that several outlets incorrectly called the 2000 Presidential Election for Al Gore and that the front page of The Chicago Tribune on November 3, 1948 proclaimed “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Social media facilitates the ease with which deleterious, untrue reports are circulated and accepted. With these reports serving as the basis for widely repeated stories across legitimate media outlets, it becomes impossible to discern what exactly has happened. When we leave journalism to all, we are left with little journalism at all.
The need for restraint in reporting and responding was brought home to Cornell in the aftermath of the recent death at Watermargin and the rape allegation against Peter Mesko ’13. Many community members responded negatively to The Sun immediately publishing possibly revealing information in the aftermath of each incident. Cornellians directly involved stressed a need for restraint that they saw as a hallmark of professional journalism on a college campus. Such a need applies to national news as well.
Even in our digital era, respect and restraint cannot be sacrificed. In cases when we don’t know the victims or parties involved, we cannot forget the impact of our use of social media for reading and reporting news. And even when we are seeking the latest news in the wake of tragedy. we cannot forget that our craving for immediate information be curbed at the expense of accuracy and angst for victims, families and a grieving country.
Jon Weinberg is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.
Original Author: Jon Weinberg