Setting The Record Straight

Given last week’s post on getting the news right, I think it’s important to acknowledge that “truth” can be a subjective term. Not in the sense of my truth versus your truth, of course. More in the sense of the truth being a process that we arrive at over time. For example, when an explosion happens, no one knows the cause or resulting damage right away, we learn that over time. When a new disease starts making people sick, it takes public health folks a while to figure out who it is making sick and how best to avoid it or heal it. They aren’t lying, they just haven’t made it to the truth yet.

Mass media, I think, works very similar to this process. Something is said, usually wrong, and eventually, as time passes and more information is obtained, the truth is arrived at. Social media, as I say during my presentations, is almost another iteration of media and suffers from the same problem; and I’d say it’s worse because of the low-threshold for publication and wide variety of users.

The difference between the two (social media and mass media) is that social media has access to a LOT more information and thus has the potential to arrive at the final “truth” more quickly. In addition, the mass media throws around slogans like, “The Worldwide Leader in News,” and tends to imply in their reporting that once something is reported, it’s the truth. Full stop.

Is it clear now where the problem comes in? Where the disconnect is? When the mass media is trying to out-Twitter Twitter with breaking news, they’re reporting the not-quite-truth. The not-finished-and-ready-for-publication truth.

I was reminded of this dynamic thanks to a post by Jon King, on his blog about public sector transformation. He brought up a great point about the recent AP Twitter account hacking, that even though the tweet about an explosion at the White House was wrong, social media has a trick up it’s sleeve that the media, with their this-is-the-final-truth reporting doesn’t have: the great ability to self-correct.

Jon lays out the case here:

If (god forbid) an explosion did go off at the White House, there would be multiple messages with photos and video flying around the twittersphere within moments. I won’t add a link to the disturbing scenes captured in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings but I think I’ve made my point.

A bomb has gone off at the White House? Go on Twitter and search the hashtag #whitehouse or #obama or #bomb or anything similar. Use your common sense. If there’s tumbleweed blowing across the desert and the sound of crickets, the chances are, it’s a hoax.

And this is definitely not the only case of social media taking a little bit to get to the “truth.” What are some other examples you know of?

UPDATE POST-WRITING: Holy smokes, Andy Carvin (one my media heroes), wrote something amazing and similar recently, definitely a must read.