Separating Social Media's Fact From Fiction Amid Crisis

Read Jeremy Stahl's guide to tweeting during a crisis at Slate.com.

In the moments following the twin explosions at the Boston Marathon, many of the initial reports disseminated through social media proved to be false. Jeremy Stahl, social media editor for Slate.com, shares his rules for social media responsibly in the midst of tragic, breaking news.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

But how journalists use social media to cover breaking news is certainly an important topic right now. An avalanche of information was disseminated over Twitter, at Facebook in the minutes and hours following the explosions at the Boston Marathon. And a Slate social media editor points out, if journalism is the first rough draft history, they Twitter is the first rough draft of journalism. Although some of the information shared on Twitter proved correct, much of the unverified reports were false, including a report about a third explosion at the JFK Library and another about law enforcements officials shutting down cell service in Boston.

Gathering information on social media can be very tricky for news outlets, so if you work in the media, how do you separate fact from fiction? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and then click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now is Jeremy Stahl. We quoted him a moment ago. He's Slate's social media editor and he joins us from the Slate studio in Washington, D.C. Welcome, Jeremy.

JEREMY STAHL: Hi, Celeste. Thanks for having me on.

HEADLEE: So, through your job, you control Slate's official Twitter account. Walk us through your decision making in the minutes following the explosion because there were - I was watching Twitter there immediately photographs and eyewitness tweets coming out from Boston. What did you do?

STAHL: The first thing I did was to shut off our automated Twitter feed, and that's something that a lot of news outlets have which is that they schedule tweets in advance to go out and I think as a social media...

HEADLEE: Things like promotional things.

STAHL: Not even promotional things. Just standard content like we - I saw the news maybe 10 or 15 minutes after it broke actually, so I was a little bit behind in shutting off the feed. And in the midst of the breaking news, a Slate tweet went out linking to our weekly Dear Prudence advice columnist. And, you know, in the middle of something like that, a regularly scheduled tweet can appear to be not only, you know, it makes you look like you're out of the news but it also can make you look callous if you're not tweeting something that is sensitive to very sensitive events. So that's the first thing I did.

HEADLEE: But the next thing you do is probably to read all these tweets, these reports coming out, there were eyewitnesses talking about what they've seen. There were people tweeting and posting videos and photographs. What sources did you turn to? How did you try - how were you able to figure out what was reliable, what was credible and what was not?

STAHL: That's right. In the moments after I found out and after making that initial turning off of the scheduled feed, I had to sift through just dozens and dozens and dozens of tweets because everybody was obviously discussing the same thing at the same time. So it's very difficult to work through all that noise and what I did was I looked to a list I have of Slate staff and usually I know that they are going to be tweeting reliable information.

So I immediately looked them, saw the most reliable information I could get from them and then I started gathering local sources in addition to looking at already a set stream of national sources that I got - that I have already set up. So I started following Boston.com, for example. I started following he Boston Globe. I started following the Boston PD, and immediately they were providing, I think, the most reliable and the quickest information, eyewitness accounts, videos, photos. Everything was there instantly and it was all at my disposal and my job was to curate it as best I could. But again, there - as you mentioned, there are pitfalls in doing that, obviously, and those pitfalls lie in speculation, which is usually rampant in things like this. And this was the case before Twitter even existed, obviously. Anytime there's a breaking news event, there will be initial early reports that will then be proven false.

And identifying those and trying to weed those out are - is generally the toughest thing to do. But I find if you source things accurately and rely on the most reputable nationwide and local media, then you're going to do a decent enough job of avoiding the speculation. But even then, avoiding all speculation is very, very difficult when you're on Twitter.

HEADLEE: Well - and yeah, since you mentioned it, even from credible sources, we did have law enforcement officials who repeated information they thought was true at the time. There were various reports about an explosion at the JFK Presidential Library, which were confirmed by reliable sources. There were some sources that were saying there were 12 people who died. There were reports of other unexploded devices that were dismantled by law enforcement and reports about a Saudi suspect that turned out to be erroneous. What happens when credible sources get it wrong? Then what?

STAHL: I think, then, you want to correct the record as quickly as possible. And I think it's impossible to get everything correct. I admit that I, you know, from the official Slate account, tweeted out some of those reports, because they came from very credible sources, as you mentioned - not just credible news sources, but credible official sources. That JFK Library tidbit came from the Boston Police Department's official Twitter feed, I believe.

And then there was another erroneous report from the Associated Press that the Boston Police had shut off all cell phones because they were worried about local detonation, and we even reported that in one of our blog posts. And lots of media outlets before that because, you know, it was the AP. So it was seen as an official source.

The important thing, I think, is to - as soon as you know something that you sent out is incorrect, you correct the record. And it's OK, I think, to make mistakes in these circumstances. You - everyone will make mistakes, and it's kind of almost impossible to avoid them.

HEADLEE: Let me just pass on an email we just got from Kate in Oregon, who says: I comb through social media info on breaking stories by following multiple sources. If something is misinformation, even when it's widespread, the cue so far is that the information is the same on all channels. That means it's one source. If it doesn't expand, there's nothing to support it. Is that true, Jeremy?

STAHL: That's an absolutely great point. A perfect example of this was yesterday, when every major media outlet and the official police press conferences and official sources were citing the number of deceased as two, and then three. Later on, it was up to three. But The New York Post was running alone with a story that 12 people had been killed in the attacks.

And they were running with a banner headline, and it was high on their site for much of the day with that number, and they were citing law enforcement officials, unnamed law enforcement officials. And, again, the best thing to do, as your emailer said, was to look at what other sources are saying and compare them and look at the questionable report's sourcing, as well.

HEADLEE: We're talking with Jeremy Stahl, who's Slate's social media editor, about how to sift through the information, all the information comes out after an event like the Boston Marathon explosions. And our question for you out there who work in media is how you separate fact from fiction. Our number is 800-989-8255. Dorothy is with us from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Dorothy, how do you sift through? I assume you work in media.

DOROTHY: Yes, I do. I'm with a small town newspaper. And what I do is exactly what Slate did. I shut down the Twitter feed. I go with one source, though, and that is my AP wire. And, yeah, I did get that cell phone report that you were talking about, which, yes, was highly erroneous, because I was able to get in touch with the Baton Rouge running team, and we were able to discern that all runners from the Baton Rouge area were, in fact, all right, and, you know, things like that.

And I also go to my rolodex, because around here, somebody always knows somebody else who knows something, and that's a benefit. That is a huge benefit.

HEADLEE: Go straight to the source. Thank you so much. That's Dorothy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Jeremy, I wonder - right now, we're talking about facts and factual accuracies. But I wonder what you think about tone and getting the tone correct, because, you know, Slate has personality. It can be humorous and wry at times. How do you change that when a tragedy like this occurs? What do you do?

STAHL: I think when something like this happens, a switch goes off in everybody's head in an instant whether or not you're a journalist, and you just immediately turn off any, you know, wryness that might - you might associate with your personal voice or the voice of your news organization. And you adopt as serious a tone as the occasion merits.

And some people don't do that. Some people find it difficult, I guess, and still make jokes about things and still, you know, snark a bit, I guess I should say. And I think the important thing for everyone, journalists and non-journalists included, is to just consider the tact that these situations merit - especially journalists, obviously.

HEADLEE: You know, I wonder if you - you're thinking back to your coverage. And it hasn't been that long since it occurred, sadly. But I'm wondering what you would done differently if could. I mean, obviously, you've mentioned not letting the Dear Prudence thing go out, and maybe not tweeting the thing from the AP, though I don't know how you could avoided that. Is there anything else you would have changed?

STAHL: We did retweet that New York Post - somebody tweeting that New York Post headline. We tweeted it as a report that the New York Post was saying - and we mentioned the fact that it was the New York Post saying this, a single source. But I would have been more skeptical with that, and I will specifically underline the fact that it was a single source that was saying this.

I actually was on the news desk at the time of the Newtown shootings, as well. And I made a - what I consider to be a very significant and regrettable error that was - I would definitely take back in a second if I could, which was CNN was reporting that the shooter was - the shooter had been identified as Ryan Lanza. And after the fact, obviously, it turned out that Ryan Lanza was not the shooter...

HEADLEE: His brother.

STAHL: ...but it was his brother, Adam Lanza. Exactly. But we ran with that report on the site Twitter feed, and we pointed to Ryan Lanza's Facebook page. And pointing to social media of suspects in major crimes like this is something that's going to be happening more and more, and it's very tricky, unexplored territory. But I would definitely be more cautious about that in the future.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

We have this tweet out from Derby(ph): Old school rule, confirm with two independent sources. Used Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to find and contact Iowa runners in Boston yesterday, which is how this particular media person verified their facts, I guess.

One of the last things you write in the piece that you wrote about this for Slate was don't retweet trolls. And this came up quite a bit, where people kept saying, stop trying to score political points - not necessarily all of us people were trolls. I don't want to imply that. But where do you draw the line between someone who's having an honest reaction to an event, and someone who is, as you say, either trying to score a point inappropriately, or is a troll?

STAHL: For the trolls, I would say that it's pretty obvious to identify public figures who are - whose main role is to be, say, a shock jock, or something like that. And those shock jocks are going to say shocking, sometimes awful things in the media aftermath of an event, because that's just what they do. And I think right after something like yesterday happens, you want to avoid drawing attention to those people and do your best to draw attention to what facts you can find. In terms of political point-scoring, I think, you know, you just you - I avoid...

HEADLEE: Avoid.

STAHL: Yeah. That is a tough one. I would avoid pointing it out, I guess, because for the same reason that you would avoid pointing out the trolls. But, I mean, you want to avoid doing it altogether. You don't want to be the person who's making a point about the abortion debate or ATF nominees, which two people at major national newspapers did yesterday, connecting them to the horrific events that were unfolding.

HEADLEE: We have a response here from Paul in Fort Collins, Colorado. Paul, how do you sift through what's real or not?

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIC)

PAUL: Well, a lot of times what we do is use Twitter to get pictures. For example, from the Aurora shooting, we wanted legitimate pictures as fast as we can get them, and Twitter was probably the fastest way to find the actual pictures from the spot that it was taken.

HEADLEE: You worked for a paper in Colorado?

PAUL: No. I work for a radio and Internet company, so I'm a morning show host on a music station with the Internet site that handles a little bit of news, mostly entertainment, but a lot of content. So anything that's happening in the area, we cover.

HEADLEE: OK. And thank you so much for your call, Paul. But this is something I want to bring to you, Jeremy, because when you're pulling a photo off of Twitter, that has its own dangers, as well. There was a lot of reaction to some of the very graphic photos that people pulled from their Twitter feeds.

STAHL: Absolutely. It's very tricky, and it's very difficult, and you want to, I think, know when something is going to be graphic. You want to say that upfront, and you don't want to go overboard in sharing those kinds of images because I'm not really sure of the news value in just sharing horrific image after horrific image.

On-the-scene photos are a different story, obviously, and the caller was absolutely right, that that's - that Twitter is a great resource. That's another one, though, where you have to be careful. You need to trust, but verify...

HEADLEE: Trust, but verify. What you're talking about, Jeremy, is the beauty of having editors, which I fully support.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: Jeremy Stahl is Slate's social media editor. He joined us from the Slate studio in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much.

STAHL: Thank you very much, Celeste.

HEADLEE: You can find a link to Jeremy's article at our website. Tomorrow, we're going to take a look at how the tragedy in Boston is affecting public safety plans in other cities around the globe. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, in Washington.

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