Why Does This Keep Happening? Hurricane Sandy Twitter Trolling Fools Some Journalists

November 8, 2012 01:30

By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director

News organizations up and down the East Coast deserve so many accolades for their work during Hurricane Sandy.  It’s a mammoth story like this one that really demonstrates the mettle of those who devote every resource to non-stop, round-the-clock coverage, not only informing their audiences, but often contributing to saving lives and property, as well.  

That’s why it’s so maddening to see, yet again, otherwise responsible news services promulgate false and malicious “information” found on social media, thereby giving it credence as true. I’ve written about this before and it’s more than unfortunate that I have to write about it again.

This time it involves a man named Shashank Tripathi, a hedge fund analyst and (now resigned) campaign manager for a House candidate in New York’s 12th District.   He used his Twitter account, @Comfortablysmug, to post egregious lies about what NYC was going through at the height of the storm.   Among the bogus Tweets:  Con Edison workers were trapped in a power station….the New York Stock Exchange floor had flooded….that a preemptive power shut down was happening all over Manhattan.  

But to make matters far worse, some of Tripathi’s 6,000 followers work for major news organizations and treated the lies as factual information in their own reporting.  Apparently, no confirmations necessary!  The decision to do so was not only irresponsible, it added to the panic and confusion that had already taken hold across much of New York City and the entire East Coast.

Of course, reporters, editors and producers were tired and stressed.  Of course, many had been working untold hours on this tragic and ever-changing story.  Of course, it must be true—it’s on the Internet!   Come on!  There’s absolutely no excuse for any journalist to throw basic fact-checking out the window for the sake of expediency or being “first” with late-breaking developments on a story of this (or any) magnitude.

Tripathi, for his part, posted a mea culpa on his Twitter page—saying simply, “I wish to offer the people of New York a sincere, humble and unconditional apology.”   He didn’t bother to say why he would do such a thing. 

This incident does not represent a problem with the Internet, which is one of the most revolutionary tools we have to gather and report the news.  But it shows clearly, once again, the problem lies with the way some journalists use all this instantaneous information (or misinformation, in this case) without checking or vetting it before sending it out again under the cache of a respected news organization.

It seems like every few months, I’m writing about another case like this.  No one would argue that our job is to seek and report the truth.  That applies to sourcing social media and the Internet, too.  When will we finally learn that our viewers, listeners and readers deserve better?