Friday, September 17, 2010

Hostage-taking live on Twitter

Was this the Discovery building gunman? The Twitterverse, including some mainstream media, said it was, but...

Twitter is fast becoming the go-to venue for live breaking news. While that means great potential for journalists and the public, it also brings a new set of issues to be grappled with. This is unexplored territory for many legacy newspapers, and a fork in the road for broadcast media—despite their rich history covering events as they unfold. With Twitter, anyone can contribute to the information stream, either on location with a smartphone, or elsewhere, online. That can enhance reporting, but may also complicate it, as the Sept. 1 hostage-taking at the Discovery Communications building in Silver Spring, Maryland, illustrates.

The news broke on Twitter at about 1 p.m., with early tweets from the public referencing cops, guns, and a shootout/hostage situation. Soon a photo appeared on yfrog, a Twitter photo service. It showed someone in a courtyard who appeared to be carrying a rifle, and the caption identified that person as the gunman.

The picture spread quickly, and at least one D.C. news organization retweeted it unconfirmed. MSNBC sought confirmation for the image using social media, and posted it on its photo blog with the headline,
Is this a picture of the Discovery gunman today? We don't know.

The blog Gawker also had its doubts: “This supposed photo of ‘the gunman’ is making the rounds, but it's most likely a law enforcement official.” As it turned out, Montgomery County police later confirmed the person in the photo was one of their tactical officers, not the hostage-taker.

While social media messages can benefit us by conveying instant awareness and updates of events, they can also create legal and ethical conundrums in real time. Issues concerning accuracy, privacy, safety, bias, and fairness loom large in the social media sphere.

Digital journalists can confront these issues by taking the time to review their own state laws governing recording and use of audio, video, and still images, and to contemplate ethical guidelines for using social media and reporting live. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers resources to help with legal aspects of reporting. The Radio Television Digital News Association provides ethical guidelines for social media along with scenarios for discussion in the newsroom. And the SPJ Code of Ethics gives guidance for journalists in all media. Taking time to address these issues now can enhance responsible journalism in today’s digital media environment.

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