As students in my Media Literacy class delivered their presentations recently on “The Future of News,” a common theme emerged: Social media has changed the news forever.
More than anything, the Facebooks and Twitters of the world provide wider and faster distribution of content than any media platform ever.
This marriage of news and social media does not come without challenges.
The predominant issue is accuracy — or the lack thereof — because most breaking stories nowadays receive the “get it first now and get it right later” treatment. The news coverage of the Sandy Hook school shootings in 2012, for example, included “disjointed bits of information — many of them inaccurate — being disseminated all day long.”
Looking back and reading the chronology of countless Tweets throughout that day illustrate just how disjointed and inaccurate such “news coverage” can be.
Yes, Twitter can provide timely and succinct information on a breaking story, but the timeliness and succinctness of tweets can also cause problems. Twitter’s limit of 140 characters per message is a chief culprit, putting a premium on curt witticisms to attract followers.
Donald Trump, the current king of the tweet, “uses his Twitter account to make news, lob attacks or wage threats against those who disagree with him and, seemingly most centrally for Trump, create a community of ever-growing people who appear to agree with him wholeheartedly,” according to the Washington Post. “It’s a dynamic, real-time messaging tool that’s under his complete control.”
Consequently, we now have a Presidential candidate who makes news almost daily with Twitter rhetoric that’s the envy of gossipy teenagers.
While Donald Trump’s calculated recklessness with Twitter can be insensitive and untruthful, it’s not necessarily harmful to society. A problem occurs, however, when journalists use Twitter to hurriedly report “breaking news” before verifying the facts. Some journalists even send out tweets merely to tantalize the public.
Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe, for example, recently tweeted the following: “UConn Women beat Miss St. 98-38 in NCAA tourney. Hate to punish them for being great, but they are killing women’s game. Watch? No thanks.”
A firestorm of discourse ensued, starting with Geno Auriemma, coach of the UConn women.
“We are what we are,” said Auriemma. “You know? We do what we do. When Tiger [Woods] was winning every major, nobody said he was bad for golf. Actually, he did a lot for golf. He made everybody have to be a better golfer. And they did. And now there’s a lot more great golfers because of Tiger.”
Soon, Shaughnessy’s tweet was the main discussion among New England sports fans. It created so much of a “ruckus,” according to the Boston sportswriter, that he felt the need to explain his tweet in a column two days later.
“I know there is a legion of UConn women’s basketball fans out there,” Shaughnessy wrote, “but I fail to see how they can be thrilled by games like [the 98-38 win]. Isn’t competition the very essence of sports?”
“With those thoughts in mind, I posted [the] tweet,” he added. “That was it. I went to dinner and didn’t think much of it.”
Shaughnessy obviously didn’t think much before posting the tweet, either. Otherwise, he might have realized that a terse statement accusing a team of “killing [the] women’s game” might provoke a rabid reaction.
And that’s the problem with Twitter when used by journalists: The 140-character limit provides no room for context or explanation. In fact, one could argue that Twitter’s primary objective is to provoke, not inform.
What, exactly, did Shaughnessy mean by “killing [the] women’s game”? No one really knew until he wrote the column — as an afterthought. So why not just write the column and forgo the tweet?
Because, as my students will tell you, social media distributes content faster and more widely than any other platform.
Shaughnessy’s tweet was about sports — not a life-and-death issue — so the harm was minimal. But what happens when a reporter tweets misinformation in the early stages of a serious news event like terrorism?
“In the heat of the moment,” explains Joanne Stocker, managing editor of Grasswire, “people don’t actually stop and look at it with a critical eye, for the most part. They just reflexively hit re-tweet.”
In other words, Twitter appeals to impulse rather than reason — the precise approach required to successfully navigate today’s news landscape.
As an example, On the Media’s “News Consumer’s Handbook” tells citizens to consider that “in the immediate aftermath [of a terrorist attack], news outlets will get it wrong” and to “compare multiple sources,” among other strategies.
Grasswire personifies this thoughtful tack. Described as a “community of over 1,200 people from all over the world,” Grasswire members use crowdsourcing to “source, verify, write and edit unbiased news stories that matter. Most of us aren’t journalists or writers or editors. Few of us have ever met in person. And we do it in our spare time.”
Such initiatives demonstrate people controlling technology — not the other way around — to make sense of news in a Twitter-fueled world. At this point, however, a largely gullible populace still accepts tweets without scrutiny.
Or as Donald Trump put it when describing his Twitter audience, “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.”
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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