Newsrooms have to address the problem of reporters spreading bogus information on social media.
This has been a long time coming.
Since the Jan. 20 inauguration, there has been no shortage of slipshod coverage of the Trump administration and we’ve covered a lot of that here.
One specific issue that has become increasingly unacceptable, and one that has contributed a great deal to the spread of misinformation, is the problem of reporters rushing to tweet “facts” that turn out later either to be misleading or false.
Now, to be fair, many of the reporters who’ve done this have tweeted follow-up corrections or clarifications. That’s good, but not good enough.
The problems here are many: First, Twitter doesn’t allow editing. Second, unlike a newspaper or even a webpage, corrections on Twitter don’t appear in the same space as the inaccurate claim. People can share one and not the other, and that’s a problem. Third, like cats landing on their feet and buttered toast always landing butter-side down, it’s a rule of nature that tweeted clarifications never get as much attention as the original claim.
Take, for example, when CNN’s Jeremy Diamond tweeted early Thursday morning in reference to the U.S. president’s joint press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping, “Trump just became the first US president since George H.W. Bush to not take questions from reporters alongside his Chinese counterpart on his first visit here. Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama all made a point of doing it.”
By mid-morning, more than 1,300 Twitter users had shared Diamond’s note. The obvious problem here is that his claim is not true.
Diamond eventually tweeted the following clarification: “Correction: Obama also did not take questions with his counterpart during his first visit. He and Xi did during a subsequent trip in 2014.” He also deleted the original tweet.
As of Thursday afternoon, only 187 users have shared the correction. The initial tweet, which Diamond deleted altogether, still reached a much larger audience.
Sadly, this is hardly an isolated incident.
On Jan. 28, CNBC’s John Harwood tweeted in reference to the Trump administration’s executive order banning travel from Middle Eastern countries, “[S]enior Justice official tells [NBC News] that Dept had no input. Not sure who in WH is writing/reviewing. Standard [National Security Council] process not functioning.”
As of this writing, that particular tweet, which is still live, has garnered 3,000-plus shares.
Hardwood tweeted a correction eventually that read, “new info from [NBC’s Pete Williams]: another DOJ official says proposed immigration order WAS reviewed by Department lawyers before it was issued.”
His correction has been shared exactly 191 times.
On Jan. 31, CNN’s Jeff Zeleny tweeted, “White House is setting up Supreme Court announcement as a prime-time contest: [Justice Gorsuch] and [Justice Hardiman] identical Twitter pages.”
Zeleny followed-up with a correction that read, “The Twitter accounts of [Justice Gorsuch] and [Justice Hardiman] were not set up by the White House, I’ve been told.”
Later, on Feb. 2, NBC News' Peter Alexander tweeted that the Trump administration had eased restrictions on Russia so that U.S. companies can go into business with the Federal Security Service, which is the successor of the dreaded KGB.
“BREAKING: US Treasury Dept easing Obama admin sanctions to allow companies to do transactions with Russia’s FSB, successor org to KGB,” he tweeted.
Alexander later walked back his scoop, tweeting, "NEW: Source familiar w sanctions says it's a technical fix, planned under Obama, to avoid unintended consequences of cybersanctions."
On Feb. 16, ProPublica's Michael Grabell tweeted that Trump allowed Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg to eavesdrop on the president’s calls in January to Lockheed Martin.
The report that Grabell relied on for his claim said no such thing. Rather, the Bloomberg News story, titled "Trump's F-35 Calls Came With a Surprise: Rival CEO Was Listening," reported Trump allowed Muilenburg to sit in on calls made to the Air Force general who manages the Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 jet.
Grabell eventually deleted his initial tweet, and he noted his mistake.
"I tweeted a story with incorrect reading earlier. I was working and didn't note the [number] of [retweets]," he said. "Fine, it's a correction my original tweet was wrong. Read the story."
This actually goes on for some time, and these are just a few examples from the beginning of this year.
This needs to change.
The first and most obvious step to correcting this problem is that reporters need to be more careful with their supposedly hot scoops. Fact-check before you publish, fellas. That this apparently needs to be said is sad. Requesting that you all be better at performing the bare minimum required by your profession seems like a small ask, but we’re asking anyway.
The second thing that reporters need to do when it turns out their scoop is not really a scoop at all is that they need to delete the erroneous tweet immediately.
Screenshot it, delete it and then tweet a correction with the screenshot.
Don’t respond to the false tweet with a separate correction. Don’t quote-tweet the inaccurate tweet with a clarification. The bogus note needs to be removed altogether so that other social media users don’t spread it. It doesn’t matter if you respond to your factually inaccurate tweet with a correction. The corrective tweet does nothing to stop other users from continuing the lie, from bloggers embedding the lie in their stories, etc. Just kill it.
There’s no set governing body for journalism (thank God), but instructing reporters to kill their bogus tweets seems like an idea that most newsrooms can get behind. Do it in the name of maintaining and preserving trust with the public. A good newsroom adds updates and clarifications to a faulty news article. So, too, should reporters be expected to remove false claims and replace them with information that is actually accurate. Baby steps, I know. But we’ll get there.