When tragedy strikes social media can hurt or help

Quite often on this blog I have preached the benefits of social media. However, there are sometimes that it can actually hurt a news situation when it isn’t managed correctly.

The hostage situation at the high school in  Marinette, Wis. this week is a prime example of the dangers of unmanaged social media. A student, with multiple weapons, took a classroom hostage and held them for about six hours Monday evening. Rumors shared on social media were reaching people long before actual facts were. These rumors included people being shot and that there was multiple casualties. Neither were true. In addition to sharing information, journalists and public officials should be monitoring the situation and dispelling rumors.

Media outlets pride themselves on seeking truth and reporting it. The Wisconsin news organizations did a good job of sharing the facts via Facebook and Twitter, but they didn’t counter rumors.

Compare that to February when a plane crashed into the IRS building in Austin, Texas. The Austin American-Statesman (@statesman on Twitter) was sharing truth and dispelling rumors. The Statesman created a hashtag to help encourage community conversation. The paper used its reporting staff to verify — or discredit —information heard on Twitter. Steve Buttry wrote a great case study based on that event and The Statesman’s coverage.

Buttry has also written other posts, including this one, on how to effectively use Twitter during a breaking news situation. A key message in Buttry’s posts are that an action plan needs to be developed before a breaking news situation occurs. News organizations need to know who will be responsible for what tasks. It’s also important to be monitoring and catch reports of events early.

In a tragedy situation such as the Marinette hostage case it’s hard enough for the media to cover the story well, but it’s well worth the challenge to search out and defeat the rumors that will be flying on social media. And, remember any situation like this involves real humans, tread lightly.