Twitter and the truth

Two tube stations within London’s Underground were reopened after reports emerged that shots were fired on Oxford Street in central London. In a message on Twitter, British Transport Police, which looks after trains and the subway network, said there was no such evidence of gunfire.

Transport Police responded alongside officers with the Metropolitan Police. According to a statement from the Met, they responded as if the incident was terrorism related. The cause of what happened is under investigation.

News organizations in Britain and internationally began reporting on the incident, as Oxford Circus’ tube station is known to be one of the busiest in the system, and central to much of London’s shopping areas and cultural life. As that news was reported, many saw the information disseminated on Twitter.

Twitter has become a way for audiences to get information quickly and to stay informed in a fast paced news environment. Yet, while there have been pros for journalists in using Twitter, there also have been cons – particularly on whether or not its credible, whether the tweet comes from a civilian or a British pop star known for a song in which his heart skipped a beat.

No matter who the person is receiving (or trying to disseminate) news, getting the right information out is essential. SPJ’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists to seek truth and report it, to cross every t and dot every i, and advises that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. This applies to all platforms, including and especially social media outlets like Twitter.

If you’re reporting a breaking news story on Twitter, here are some tips to remember:

  • Verify everything: If its a photo or testimonial, try to contact the user behind that to verify what happened. Vet the material before you use it, whether in an article or on the air.
  • Cite with caution: If you come across a report about a story you’re covering, consider if it will be helpful to you in your coverage. If you cite it, mention the report as you try to confirm information.
  • Be transparent: A forthright journalist is a credible journalist. If you get something wrong, correct it. If you’re not running with something because of uncertainty, explain why. Even if you’re retweeting a report, add a note at the top of the tweet for clarity and explain why its important.
  • Don’t tweet for tweeting’s sake: As mentioned above, if you find a report, consider if it will be helpful to you in your coverage. Will it help more than harm? Will it help the public as you tell the story? Would it benefit your friends, family or neighbors if you were telling them? Think twice before retweeting.
  • Verify everything: It’s so nice it’s worth saying twice! You have an obligation to get the most accurate information out to the public possible. Remember, it is better to be right than be first.

In the world where the news cycle has become fast paced, the goal of getting accurate information out to the public has not. So when you take to Twitter, and bear these tips in mind, you can show anyone, even that pop star, why the need to seek truth and report accurately is crucial.

You’ll also reduce the amount of skipping heartbeats along the way.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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