The Austin Plane Crash In the Twitter Age

A small plane crashed into a building in Austin, Texas, and almost immediately, KXAN reporter and Mizzou Alum Matt Flener was on-scene.  Immediately, the conjectures started flying. (“It looked like [the pilot] had full control,” a man Flener interviewed live on KXAN and KXAN.com said, “but as he cleared the apartments, he just dropped down.”)  He and other reporters entered wall-to-wall, off-the-cuff, breaking news mode.

And everyone was hitting Re-Tweet.

As is predictable in breaking news situations, news organizations began filling their suddenly gaping news hole with whatever bits of information they could get their hands on from whatever source they could get it — is it terrorism? Is it suicide? Is it all just a horrible accident? That part — the regurgitating of any information the media could find — was in fact predictable.  What wasn’t as predictable was the backlash.
“It is irresponsible journalism to put out information that is not confirmed with law enforcement,” the Austin Police Chief said.  Conjectures flew about the plane; it’s pilot, Joseph Stack (or is it Joseph Andrew Stack?… or is it Andrew Stack?…); and the extent of the damage. But while Austin police weren’t in control of the information, it didn’t seem like the news media had a better handle on the facts either:  at first, there was talk that it was an accident. Then officials came out to say it was being investigated as a crime.

I think there are poignant parallels between this situation and the media that’s become so Twitter-crazed in the past few days:  We live in a Re-Tweet journalism world, in which verification of that Re-Tweet isn’t ethically necessarily so long as you make sure all you’re doing is Re-Tweeting it, not taking ownership of the information!  There are virtues to this approach in a pinch, but this isn’t the first case in which our Re-Tweet mentality has hurt us. I think about the “bomb scare” incident in Jefferson City, in which rumor was reprocessed and spun out of control as Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder tweeted from his office building — it turned out to be a complete misunderstanding (if not an all-out hoax).

It’s all about the virtues of verification — and while Twitter can do immense good for journalists in breaking news situations, I think journalists also need to find a way to keep their standards of fact-checking reasonably high.

Okay… Please RT!

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