Some news outlets put unidentified folks on the air or in their stories saying things like "that tornado sounded like a freight train" or "them politicians are all alike" or "reading Memmott's notes is worse than going to the dentist."
NPR doesn't do that (mostly). If we talk to people for a piece that will be broadcast and/or put on the Web, we get their names, ages, occupations, hometowns, etc. If there's a strong reason for giving anonymity, we have guidelines to follow and we have discussions before doing so.
The same guidelines should apply when it comes to using comments we see on social media.
A Newscast spot Wednesday about the death of Maya Angelou included quotes from two tweets by individuals we didn't try to identify.
Now, this wasn't the worst infraction in the world. They were words of praise. The messages were in line with many others posted on Twitter.
But, there really is no difference between the unnamed person in the street and the unnamed person on Twitter or other social media. We don't know anything about the tweeters. We don't know if they really believe what they wrote. We don't know their ages. We were basically putting information from random, anonymous individuals on the air.
Using tweets or other things we find on social media that way puts us on the old slippery slope:
If we quote an anonymous tweet in a spot, why not use an anonymous voice? If we can do this when they're words of praise, why not when the tweets are attacks?
It's worth noting, as well, that in the Angelou spot we probably could have characterized the tone of the Twitter conversations and cited some tweets or comments posted by people whose identities we could report because they have been verified.
Which leads me to three pieces of hopefully helpful information.
– First, check out the Verification Handbook. It's a relatively new site edited by Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute. There are tips and links to tools for verifying "user-generated content" such as Tweets and emails, and for verifying images and videos.
– Second, check out Twitter's best-practices page, which has guidance on "filtering mentions for verified users."
– Third, Pam Fessler offers some advice about things she does to check the stories and people she encounters when reporting about poverty:
"It's something I worry about a lot because I use so many personal stories in my poverty reporting. ... So I try to make sure that most of the people I profile have been referred to me by someone else who I trust for one reason or another (caseworkers, etc.).
"I also find it helps to talk to people several times — and for long interviews, in their homes if possible — because I've learned on this beat stories change the longer you talk with someone. This gives me a better idea what to believe or not to believe.
"But it's certainly not foolproof. So I almost always Google the names of people I profile and then create a Google alert for that name while I'm writing and producing the story, just in case there's some last-minute development (like an arrest)."