Coverage of Chris Henry tragedy highlights need for responsibility in online journalism

I am not an old school journalist. I'm not one who believes blogs and Twitter should never be trusted. Blogs and Twitter aren't people, one cannot cast everyone using the medium under one light. It'd similar to saying "the phone should never be trusted" or "anyone who emails you isn't a credible source." That's absurd. Online sources pulled from Twitter and blogs should be treated the same as any other source, with a bit of skepticism.

While it's been debated for some time, this issue was framed in my mind by the coverage of the Notre Dame hiring process and further highlighted last night by the premature reports of Chris Henry's death.

Going back, Twitter and blogs should be treated the same as any other source. For some reason, people have skipped the process of evaluating potential sources. Things to consider:

  • Do I know this person?
  • Are they hiding behind anonymity?
  • Have they provided trustworthy information in the past?
  • Are they a firsthand source or is the information being relayed through someone else?

With many online media outlets, questions like these have been ignored and any accountability is passed from the journalist to the source.

For example, last night a fake Twitter account claiming to be someone from the Dallas Morning News prematurely announced the passing of Chris Henry, despite the fact that he was still on life support. Michael Rand of the Star Tribune has a great post on how this played out via Twitter and he does highlight the point I'm trying to make, this has less to do with the viral nature of Twitter and more to do with online news outlets taking some users' word as gospel.

As mentioned in the Star Tribune blog post, multiple publications ran with the Tweet, including The Huffington Post. Along with claiming the Dallas Morning News reported on the story, despite the fact that it wasn't mentioned anywhere on their website (only on this fake Twitter account), the Huffington Post embedded a Twitter search for 'Chris Henry dead' in their post. This could create the illusion that several people believed and were reporting that Chris Henry was indeed dead. Once again, any sense of accountability is passed on. "We didn't say this is what happened, it's just what we heard."

Imagine how this would play out in the real world. A fan who wishes to remain anonymous walks up to a beat writer after a Yankee game. "I'm hearing Alex Rodriguez plans on retiring after this year so at not to further tarnish the record books." The beat writer then prints it in his gamer: "I don't have any further information on this but one source has told me that Alex Rodrguez will retire after the season."

Would that fly? At all? Absolutely not. When Alex Rodriguez is forced to comment on the issue and everyone comes back to the writer asking what he was thinking, could he say "Hey, don't blame me, blame the source"? No. But this continues to happen in the world of online journalism. Writers pre-empt negative feedback on poor reporting with the preface that they haven't done any work, they're just relaying what they heard and any blame should fall on the source. With online rumors, everything is recorded in writing so it's much easier to point to and place blame on something you can still see as opposed a verbal conversation.

If any blog or online media outlet hopes to 'make it', they must adopt some accountability. Any site that continues to pass on rumors alone will surely wear out its credibility shortly. Social media tools should be used to their full extent, but when using them one must adopt the same principles and skepticism used with other reporting mediums.

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Ed. - December 17, 2009 2:16 PM

Editor's note: " must adopt the same principles and skepticism used with other reporting mediums."

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