Another gun tragedy struck America yesterday, this time at the Washington Navy Yard in the nation’s capital. 34-year old Navy veteran Aaron Alexis opened fire about a mile from the U.S. Capitol and killed twelve others, according to Bloomberg News; no motive has yet been identified, but terrorism is still a possibility. The shooting triggered a shutdown of all nearby schools and of the U.S. Senate buildings and is the deadliest mass killing since the Newtown, Connecticut rampage in December.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, scores of news reports flew around the Internet and social media sites, as news outlets and journalists competed to report developing events first. Multiple facts were reported wrong: for example, the number of gunmen involved was reported from one to more than three and the number of casualties varied from one to more than fifteen depending on the source.
Many of the incorrect reports were based off of information relayed by police scanners, which was quickly spread via social media sites such as Twitter. In the immediate aftermath following a crime, police scanners are not reliable because they are filled with conjectures as authorities attempt to piece together what exactly occurred. Paul Farhi’s Washington Post article points out that erroneous reporting on high-profile events has become the norm with the popularity of social media. Following the Newtown, Connecticut shooting, a slew of false reports were distributed via social media, such as one claiming that the suspect fled the scene after the crime even though he was dead at the scene. Following the Boston Marathon bombings, various news outlets quickly reported that a third explosion occurred at the JFK Library, when it fact it was an unrelated fire.
Photo of police scanner courtesy of Flickr user woodrat
Paul Farhi, in another article, argues that errors made in modern news reporting are less consequential than ever due to the rapid pace of information flow over the Internet and social media. The intense competition to report events first and the ease of widely transmitting information have undoubtedly contributed to the increase in faulty reporting. However, the very reasons that provide for a larger room for error also allow for much faster correction of mistakes, a rapid self-correcting mechanism that is highly apparent on social media. The existence of numerous news outlets and abundance of journalists also aids in quicker correction of erroneous reporting. When one source appears to deliver the correct information, the original sources quickly backtrack and correct their mistakes. I still remember first learning about the Boston bombings on Twitter. As I refreshed my feed every hour, news outlets I followed like CNN were constantly posting corrections to their previous tweets and posting new information in real-time.
I agree in large part with Farhi that the erroneous reporting accompanying the rise of social media is balanced by the rapid self-correction mechanism that occurs inherently with the rapid transmission of information. I believe that the speed of modern news is worth the incorrect reports because it can have the potential to prevent a tragedy from becoming worse or to catch the wanted. For example, take the Navy Yard rampage that occurred yesterday. News of the shooting was on social media within minutes. Had the shooter fled the scene, those who were immediately aware of the news might have possessed enough information to catch him before he left the neighborhood or city. In the past, more traditional, slower news reporting could have allowed the criminal to escape. Of course, this is an entirely hypothetical situation with many if’s. However, I do believe that in the future, crimes will be averted or mitigated because of the rapid dissemination of news by social media.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr user NCinDC