The evil of social media
Nov. 5, 2012
By Ryan Gueningsman

A horrific accident takes place on a major highway just before rush hour outside any small community in America.

It doesn’t take long for word to get back to town as people who happen to be in the area, traveling the same road perhaps, whip out their cell phones and begin talking about what they just saw through their Facebook pages or through Twitter. Some post cell phone pictures of the cloud of smoke that resulted from the accident; others post photos of the traffic backup.

Social media lights up with speculation on who was involved and what circumstances led up to the crash. People who see these first images and read initial reports of the accident begin thinking about loved ones who travel the roadway on a daily basis. Could it be someone I know? Frantic phone calls are made and text messages are sent.

Initial news reports online from the incident provide the basics – how many vehicles were involved, how long the highway is expected to be shut down, etc.

Emergency personnel have a job to do, which takes time, and addressing the media is not always at the top of their priority list in a situation like this. In addition to handling the scene, emergency personnel often have the daunting task of notifying next-of-kin if the accident results in a fatality.

However, while this process is taking place, speculation about the accident continues to grow on social media, and before long, someone posts condolences to a certain family on the loss of a loved one.

Think about it. That family may not have even been formally notified of the loss of their loved one. Even if they have been notified, chances are they have not yet been able to make all necessary phone calls to other family and friends. The last thing I would want to learn on my Facebook wall is that someone I love had passed away unexpectedly.

The social-media society that has been created has led to a continuous feed of information throughout one’s life.

As soon as one hears about whatever incident may have taken place, perhaps even through social media, it has become human nature to want to know more and share what we do know, or think we know, with our friends.

It seems the focus has become wanting to know as much as possible, as soon as possible. Sometimes in the news industry, one sees quality and accuracy sacrificed for speed. The first news outlet to get information – whether it be correct or not – on its website will receive the most page views and website traffic.

Basic human compassion is being lost as society continues to demand that we “must know now.”

As hours pass, more and more bits of information show up on social media. However, official sources have not yet released the names of those involved in the crash. Even though, thanks to social media, a majority of the community seems to already know.

It is the policy of this publication to not publish information on victims of any disaster until information is received and verified from an official source – be it local law enforcement, a medical examiner’s office, or funeral home.

Thanks to social media, information from official sources is getting harder to find amid a sea of unofficial information. Sources become whomever happens to drive by the scene and snap a photo with their cell phone or whomever hears from a friend.

Once information is posted and shared a couple times online, it becomes viewed as a source and is considered the truth – even though many aspects of the incident may still not even be known to the authorities who are investigating it.

That is why, even though we in the news business may be confident we know who was involved in an incident, we wait until we have verification from an official source before publishing. That is a clear line we can always defend. We cannot compete with social media in this instance, nor do we want to.

The advancements of technology can hinder the ability for journalists to report thoroughly and do their jobs, and journalists can find themselves in a reactionary mode of dispelling rumors instead of simply reporting the facts.

Please, think before you post.

Realize that a family is grieving and needs that time of togetherness as they come to terms with their loss.

Social media can certainly be utilized in a positive way during a difficult time, and Facebook pages, as an example, eventually can become a tribute page to loved ones lost.

Finding that balance between speed and accuracy, combined with a bit of compassion and common sense, is the key.

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