Dorothy Crenshaw November 11, 2009 | 12:06:56

What Fort Hood Taught Us About Social Media

It’s sadly ironic that on this Veterans Day, we’re not only contemplating our military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but mourning the loss of 13 soldiers on our own soil less than a week ago. As usual, the traditional media have reported not just the tragedy at Fort Hood, but the inspiring stories of bravery and selflessness, like the actions of civilian officer Kimberly Munley and Pfc. Marquest Smith. But social media, so often hailed as a hero during times of crisis, fell short that day.

The misinformation spread on Twitter Thursday included erroneous reports that the shooter was killed, as well as pictures of the wounded as they arrived at the hospital, complete with casual, even flippant updates. It was hurtful to all involved. The inaccurate tweets of a soldier inside the base (complete with her phone number for reporters to call, and requests for RTs) were harshly criticized by Paul Carr in a scathing blog post for TechCrunch. It raises disturbing questions about voyeuristic and even narcissistic “reporting” by regular people that’s been enabled by technology.

I can’t speak to the broader ethical questions here, and I won’t try to. But when it comes to the failure of citizen journalism, why are we surprised? Only because it’s been so overhyped. Just as we saw with the so-called social media revolution in Iran, the impact of even legitimate social media reporting and attention has been greatly exaggerated. Of course, professional reporters make mistakes as well, but they’re held to a pretty high standard for accuracy and objectivity, and they face very real consequences for any breach.

At the end of the day, citizen journalists are just that. Citizens. Amateurs. Regular people with cameraphones. That’s the appeal of citizen reporting –  the lack of convention, the freshness, the opinion bleeding through the story. But, the Fort Hood tragedy is a reminder of the many reasons why citizen reporting shouldn’t replace professional journalism, and why it never will.

3 thoughts on “What Fort Hood Taught Us About Social Media

  1. The main advantage of citizen journalists is their ability to capture video or audio of something as it happens – if they happen to be on the scene at that moment. Apart from these spontaneous recordings, the text of citizen reports is usually worthless. Even incorrect and damaging at times, as you point out.
    I didn’t watch that much of the Ft. Hood news coverage, but among the bits that were most powerful for me was the home video that captured the sirens and the announcement across the base instructing the residents to stay inside and lock doors/windows. Also the roll call at the memorial service yesterday and the silence after the names of those killed were called. The latter was a professional news story, not amateur, but my point is that the audio/video recordings provided by amateurs from the scene can be valuable – but leave the commentary to the professionals.

    1. Good point, Tina. I don’t totally agree with Paul Carr that we’re sinking into some kind of sick voyeuristic obsession (although in today’s reality-tv-saturated culture, it’s easy to see the danger.) As you say, it’s the immediacy, the eyewitness-style documentation that makes citizen journalism appealing, especially if it’s video, which is hard to fake.

  2. Ordinary citizens on the spot have provided valuable input when professional reporters were not around- can we ever forget the Rodney King beating? But the commentary part of the equation is clearly lacking in objectivity. My question is- which is worse, inaccuracy by amateurs because of lack of experience or the deliberate twisting of the truth by professionals who happen to be extremists? In the case of the amateurs, I agree that they provide a service to fill gaps, but can never replace the non-biased professionals who comprise the majority of “The Press”.

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