Facts are More Important Than Being First
Thanks to technology, everyone who wants to be a writer and publisher can easily do so online. Unfortunately, this ease has resulted in a lot of unease about how information is disseminated.
Early online information about the recent massacre of children and adults at a Connecticut school is a case in point. Initial reports identified the killer as a man named Ryan Lanza, though, as it turns out, Lanza’s younger brother, the real perpetrator of this horror, who killed himself, had apparently used his brother’s identification during the incident.
But by the time this ruse was detected, the innocent brother had been harassed and threatened online by people who read or heard the inaccurate information, and he issued distraught denials on his Facebook page. Imagine the tragedy that would have occurred if some self-righteous vigilante, missing or ignoring his declaration of innocence, had stormed the elder Lanza’s home or office and killed him.
In addition, reports varied about the number and type of guns the perpetrator used, prompting online debates about gun control based on the firepower and capacity of the weapons apparently used. Such careless argument before the facts are straight just confuses what is already an emotionally charged social issue.
News media, including television and radio news programs and newspapers and magazines, sometimes make such mistakes, and when the information is significant, such sources retract it as soon as possible. Sometimes, it’s too late, and the damage is done. But usually, because of generally stringent standards for gathering facts for reporting, the erroneous information is never released in the first place.
But now that virtually anyone, anywhere can post or otherwise disseminate mistaken “facts,” the risk of tragic consequences is multiplied. Even fairly innocuous information can be damaging, so take care when passing along a piece of news:
1. Before blogging or tweeting information, verify though reputable news sources — or, better yet, directly from those involved — that it is correct. (Two other ways of putting it: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is, and, more lightheartedly, if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.)
2. Being correct is more important than being first.
3. Clearly distinguish fact from opinion in your own commentary, and be alert for your own biases.
4. If you do introduce or repeat misinformation, correct it as soon and as prominently as possible.
5. Most important, if you fail to heed any of these tips, learn from your failures so that next time, there is no next time.