How Not to Tweet About a Tragedy

Jeremy Stahl offers the media some advice on Slate
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 16, 2013 12:18 PM CDT
How Not to Tweet About a Tragedy
Paul McRae, a native of New Zealand now living in Jacksonville, takes a photograph of an empty Boylston Avenue near the Boston Marathon finish line, in Boston, Tuesday, April 16, 2013.   (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Twitter was flooded with breaking news—some of which turned out to be erroneous—as well as some journalists using that news to score political points. Journalism has been called "the first rough draft of history," and Twitter has become "the first rough draft of journalism," writes Jeremy Stahl on Slate. As such, the media must abide by some basic rules while using it:

  • Turn off auto-posting: Slate did not, and its Twitter feed (which Stahl oversees) ended up tweeting a Dear Prudence column about threesomes.
  • Use official or first-person sources, and cite them: Ignore people reporting things they heard on police scanners, "a notoriously unreliable source" of confirmed information.
  • Don't tweet speculation: Both Slate and BuzzFeed tweeted a New York Post report that 12 were dead, which turned out to be false.
  • But realize even the best outlets get things wrong: The AP erroneously reported that Boston authorities purposely shut down cell service yesterday; Reuters erroneously reported the JFK Library fire was an explosion (and Slate retweeted it).

  • Don't snark: No one wants to read "jokes about how Republicans are going to blame Obama for this" right now.
  • Don't try to score political points: Similarly, no one wants to read things like what Nicholas Kristof tweeted and quickly removed: "explosion is a reminder that ATF needs a director. Shame on Senate Republicans for blocking apptment."
  • In fact, don't get political at all: In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like this, reporters should report—not "offer political analysis before there's any actual information available."
  • Don't feed the trolls: Retweeting "outrageous conspiracy theories" is tempting, but just ignore them.
But if you find someone else making one of the above mistakes, don't shame them and don't get self-righteous, Stahl writes. "Let he who is without sin cast the first critical tweet. You might find yourself fact-shaming the New York Post one minute, only to pass on an inaccurate report from Reuters the next." Click for his full column. (More Boston Marathon bombing stories.)

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