Fact checking in the social media age
There’s no doubt that the growth of Social Media has fundamentally changed the practice of journalism. With one tweet journalists can identify subjects for their stories, gather opinions or be the first to break a big story.
This week the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld a complaint from former Presidential election candidate Sean Gallagher about The Frontline programme’s treatment of a tweet received during its Presidential debate on the Monday night before the election.
The BAI said that RTE had made no apparent effort to verify the accuracy of a tweet which claimed to be from the official Martin McGuiness campaign twitter account. The tweet asserted that a man from whom Gallagher was supposed to have collected a cheque for Fianna Fail was to appear at a Sinn Fein press conference the following day.
A further tweet, from the official McGuinness campaign, during the programme made it clear that the tweet broadcast did not come from the campaign and yet it was not corrected during the programme by Presenter Pat Kenny.
Given Gallagher’s meteoric rise in the polls up to that point, the programme is seen as a turning point in the election which led to Michael D. Higgins’ success just four days later.
For all those who have dismissed Twitter as clatter, the Gallagher tweet has demonstrated the impact that the micro-blogging site is having on news. Print, broadcast and online journalists are now sprinting to break news before their competitors, and in such a rush it’s not hard to see how mistakes are made.
Internet search has had as great an impact on the job of the journalist as Social Media. Given the vast amounts of information available online, there appears to be little need to verify facts anymore. With a few exceptions, it seems that the tradition of journalists making late night “fact-checking” calls to press offices and PR firms is on the wane.
Many of us have re-tweeted without any way of being sure of the accuracy of the tweet’s content. Twitter is a faceless medium and it would do us all no harm sometimes to suspend belief until a fact is verified by another source or in another medium.
But, while it’s fine for “citizen journalists” to use social media with a somewhat casual approach, professional journalists must be held to a different standard.
Squaring the new reality of the ease of internet search, and social media’s omnipresence, with the essential requirement for journalism to be fair, objective, impartial and accurate is proving to be a renewed challenge for the profession.
Yes, social media provides additional and, it could be argued, more varied sources to journalists. But, in the serious arena of news and current affairs broadcasting all the old rules about verifying sources and confirming the accuracy of facts and events remains paramount.