From the terror attack in Boston to a hacked AP twitter account, the journalism world has demonstrated this week that it hasn’t successfully transitioned into a world dominated by social media and the citizen-journalist. The bombings in Boston represented a new level of inconsistency in the world of both professional and citizen journalism–from the initial reports of an inaccurate death count to claims of a Saudi man in custody to the online witch-hunt of Brown student Sunil Tripathi. Reporting by CNN, NY Post, Fox News was not only inaccurate, it was border-line reckless: CNN has been repeatedly chastised since for their on the ground reporting that was consistently in the way of Boston PD. Many believe that much of CNN’s “on-the-scene” coverage was done in order to be the first to break news given their slow response on the day of the bombing. In a digital world built on how fast you can break news as opposed to the actual quality of the news, journalistic institutions are changing how they operate.
On top of poor reporting this week was the hacked twitter account of AP news. In one tweet (claiming two explosions at the White House had injured President Barack Obama), the AP sent the world into a frenzy. Before an AP employee tweeted that the report was false and they had been hacked (roughly 3 minutes after it had occurred), the Dow had plummeted 150 points and the price of crude oil reached a decade low. In that short time, the tweet had accrued over 3,000 retweets, as users across the world vouched for its authenticity with a click of a button.
In both situations, we’ve seen incorrect information spread like wildfire throughout the whole of social media. In order for such information to spread, the accounts themselves tweeting such reports aren’t the sole contributors to the problem. Also helping fuel the fires are the personal twitter accounts that retweet the reports. While journalistic institutions are held responsible for potential libel (indeed, many news stations or websites may be facing legal action from the Tripathi family), what about the regular ‘ole Joe that retweeted the report? Did they themselves contribute to the spread of fraudulent information? Is it libel if someone posts a false report or retweets a fraudulent tweet?
In a recent argument published by Chip Stewart, from TCU, he argues that the spread of false information by non-journalistic institutions (read citizen-journalists) does not constitute libel. Using Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, he argues that citizens are protected from libel, particularly online, using a “wire-service”-esque defense, saying, more or less, that citizens are simply reporting said news agency has reported this. Thus, when a tweet or Facebook post that has false information appears, only the original source can be targeted for libel and sued for damages.
What does this mean in the long run for the shifting world of journalism?
Because citizen journalists are protected under said code, it’s much harder to determine accuracy of social media posts that link to reports or articles. If I, for example, retweet something untrue from Fox News, I’m not putting myself in danger of being sued, but only furthering the chance that Fox does. This changes the dynamics of journalism, as more and more major networks or reporting services will have to double and triple-check information to avoid repeats of recent mistakes from CNN whereas citizens will be able to post information without holding the accountability of major journalistic institutions. This increases the speed (what’s valued more in today’s news) but not accuracy (for which only major institutions can be held accountable).
Even anonymous sources citing inaccurate information on social media and blogs are now protect under Section 230 and the 1st Amendment as a recent Idaho court ruled that the identities of four “online speakers” did not have to be revealed. Such rulings further entrench the right to free speech with citizens, while holding much higher standards to journalistic institutions.
What is the effect of this in the long run?
With more and more news being broken by citizen journalists or smaller journalistic institutions, often through social media, this puts more and more pressure on major institutions to be both accurate and timely. As we saw in the past week, this often is not the case, as major news networks fight over one another to break major news and often get it wrong. At the same time, citizens citing these sources are not held at fault under Section 230. In the world of online journalism, it appears that citizens are much more protected than major news institutions, and it trends more and more in that direction every day. How this will affect major news media is unknown. However, one could hypothesize that major institutions will either fade and serve more as a confirmation to breaking news or become more prominent, sensational and often wrong.