You Are Editor: Do you ever believe what you see on social media?

There are quite a few black-and-white declarations going on in the comments section of the post last evening about the “homeless hoax” perpetrated on Twitter.

People rightly feel that the news media should have checked out the rumor lie, and they’re right. YahooSports and CBS Sports should have, just as many in local media did.

Simple, right?

We haven’t played You Are Editor in a long time. Let’s play.

Scenario #1: Bana Alabed is a seven-year-old girl tweeting her last moments in Aleppo as government-backed troops moved on the city in their final assault. Her tweets were retweeted and many articles focused on her plight in the world’s media.

Compelling stuff.

Do you run her account in your newspaper/TV/publication?

I didn’t. I couldn’t be sure there really was a Bana Alabed. Social media being what it is, she could’ve been a creation of media-savvy group sympathetic to rebels.

As it turned out, she’s real. And, fortunately, she’s now safe, and I missed a good story.

Scenario #2: Ilhan Omar goes to Washington and posts this on her Facebook page:


Do you run the story based on her Facebook post?

I didn’t since there were no police reports on record and she wasn’t making herself available for questions.

A week ago, she posted a much more detailed account that makes her accusations more verifiable.

And I missed a good story.

Scenario #3 — This is the moment when the world of journalism changed forever.


Flight 1549 lands in the Hudson River and a bystander on a ferry snaps a picture and seconds later it’s on Twitter.

The FAA doesn’t know what’s going on. There’s nothing on the wires about it.

Do you retweet it?

  • Kassie

    I said no to the first and last one, but yes to the middle one. For the middle one about Omar, if she is telling the truth, it is a story and if she is lying, it is still a story.

    • But as an editor, you’re in no position to know what the truth is. You can talk to the person making the assertion, and there’s no evidence of it existing from anyone else.

      Why not just sit on it ?

      • Anna

        It’s obvious from the election news cycle that people don’t “just sit” on ANYTHING.

        It might be a good idea in a journalistic sense to sit on it but far too many news agencies have figured out to their chagrin, people will believe ANYTHING if it comes from the Internet.

        The new policy appears to be “just run with it” and we’ll print a retraction later.

        If it’s on the Internet, it has to be true, right?

        • BJ

          >It’s obvious from the election news cycle that people don’t “just sit” on ANYTHING.

          Is it?

          I would bet a number of places sat on a lot of ‘stories’.

      • Kassie

        Let’s be honest, part of the reason I don’t have a job like that is because I don’t want to have to make those sort of calls. I’m a good bureaucrat that follows procedure like a champ.

        And it isn’t all about “is it true?” It is also about “is it news?” and “Do we need to be first, or among the first, to report?”

  • CHS

    I voted no on all except the Ilhan Omar story. Whether verified or not at the time, the statement she made is newsworthy in and of itself as she is now a member of congress. Congresspersons make statements all the time, and they should be reported to get them on the record, they can then be verified and they can be questioned about them. (answer assumes that the reporter verified that this actually WAS posted on her verified FB account)

    Other than that, my threshold as would be editor would be does the information have the potential to contribute to the immediate safety and security of the reader in the timeframe of it being read. If not, it can wait until it is verified. Think unverified active shooter, chemical spill, etc…

    • She’s not a member of Congress.

      • CHS

        Member of any elected body was my point, state or national. I mis-remembered that one.

    • wjc

      She’s in the state legislature.

  • Postal Customer

    Is your worry that you missed a good story, or that other media, in their rush to not miss a good story, didn’t verify it?

    The Hudson River thing…is it critical that the masses know about such an event before the FAA does?

    • I don’t have a worry. I’m pointing that “don’t report until verified” doesn’t always hold up in practice for philosophy, even by those who say “don’t report until verified”, as some of the answers here attest.

      Theoretically, if “don’t report until verified” is a black-and-white solution… then the answer to #1, #2, and #3 is “no.”

      But it’s not black and white.

      • Tim

        For me, it comes down to maintaining the credibility and integrity of the organization. If that means sacrificing being the first on some hot stories, so be it — there will always be more in the future. Trust, however, takes a long time to rebuild.

  • Anna

    I don’t text, I don’t tweet and I don’t Facebook so I couldn’t tell you if I would run the stories or not.

    If I were a journalist, I would run the stories by my boss just as they did on the Boston Globe story (Spotlight) regarding sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston and just like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward did when they broke the Watergate break-in story.

    In the media madness of the digital journalism age, I think it would be a very good idea to go back to the very basics—check your facts and verify. That’s Journalism 101.

    I would run the Omar story simply because I have read credible sources about her.

    I would hold back on the Aleppo story and the plane crash until I could check more sources.

  • crystals

    I had different answers for #1 v. #2, for the (potentially flawed) reason that #2 is a public figure who IS known. If running Omar’s story I certainly would put in all the caveats about no additional information is available, it is her own narrative, etc. but it feels newsworthy. The Bana tweets I wouldn’t have run without some sort of verification that she is who she says she is. Sad but true.

    As for #3, it seems pretty clear there IS a plane in the Hudson. How it got there or what happened I wouldn’t speculate, but…it’s there. I’d probably RT or say that there is a report and apparent visual proof of a plane being in the Hudson, but that there isn’t FAA information available and not go any further than that.

    • But how do we know it’s there and not Photoshopped?

      • crystals

        Fair question, and that question was underneath including there was apparent visual proof – to acknowledge that we don’t 100% know for sure. It’s all with the hindsight of knowing there actually WAS a plane in the Hudson, of course.

        I’m trying to think of a time I did tweet/RT something that made me a little uneasy because I wasn’t sure it was true but I still did it anyways.

  • Veronica

    For #1– I was a little dubious at the time, but after looking through her feed, she seemed real to me, and I did RT at least one of her tweets.

    For #2– I was a little dubious at the time, but wanted to see what more could come out.

    For #3– I don’t know. I’m trying to remember Twitter back then– I think the use of it was still small enough that I was more likely to believe what I saw.

    For #1 and #3–Awareness of the situation by retweeting seemed more urgent at the time. By the time Ilhan Omar posted, she wasn’t under threat.

  • kennedy

    “No” to all three. I wouldn’t RT as an individual. Then again, I’m not an editor and don’t understand the difficulties in balancing the needs to be accurate and relevant.

  • For me, there’s a difference between retweeting something with a comment like “Hey, I don’t know if this is true, but FYI” and doing a news story based on a tweet. Like the publications that ran with the easy-to-disprove “U.S. Bank Stadium helps the homeless” story.

    This is also a chance to provide some context to a story that has exploded on social media. Rather than writing a piece simply recounting the post, why not take the 5-10 minutes to make a call or two. You can then write a story along the lines of “Lots of people are sharing this, but be careful, we haven’t been able to confirm it.”

  • Gary F

    The year 1995, Tommy Mischke, one of the funniest guys in radio, on AM 1500, made a comment that made it all the way up the ladder and NBC news broke into programming. Cal Ripkin was injured in a car accident in Minneapolis. The Orioles were in town to play the Twins and Cal was a few weeks away from breaking the record. Someone at KARE11 was listening, heard the news, it went directly on the air at the #11, the NBC got word, and they ran a scroll on it during that evenings program. No one ever bothered to verify the story, no one even knew what Twitter or social media even was at the time.

  • Tim

    No to all. I hesitated on #2, but in the end I decided more corroboration was necessary.

    I’m not an editor, but I do have a journalism B.A., and at least back when I was in school, these by themselves would not have been considered adequate by my instructors — technically, anyway. But my media ethics (and law) courses also taught me that questionable sourcing, not to mention the conflict over being first versus accuracy, have been issues for a long time. These are just new manifestations of these dilemmas.

  • Will

    Story #2 did need more context than the initial report, the fact that the person who harassed Omar was himself a recent African immigrant was essential to the story.

    • crystals

      How so? Do tell.

      • Will

        That’s the full story, telling half the story puts the image of Trump supporters doing it like that 18 year old woman who made a similar claim which was later found to be made up. Bob did you hold off on that one? I don’t recall, good job if you did!

        • I haven’t done anything on the story at all. As I indicated in the post.

          • Will

            Thank you for holding off on reporting unconfirmed stories. It helps to give MPR a better name than other news organizations.

          • crystals

            She filed reports in DC. Does that make it confirmed, or no? I’m curious what your bar for confirmed stories is.

          • That fact was not in her original Facebook post. That came later. You have to make the call on the original Facebook post. Her statement several days later described what she reported and to whom. But that was after it had already made its way to the news.

            My bar for confirmed stories? As I’ve pointed out, contrary to what many believe, one size does not really fit all on these sorts of questions. But, in general, my bar is that they’re confirmed.

          • crystals

            I know! I was wondering if that made it confirmed in Will’s eyes now.

            And I agree with you – one size does not fit all.

        • crystals

          That’s not what your first comment says. Your first comment says that the man was a recent African immigrant was essential to the story. Why?

          People of all races and ethnicities can be (and are) biased against Muslims. I personally don’t think it matters whether the people are white or not.

          But I digress – we’re going far afield from the topic at hand.

  • Ben

    I would say no to all three, no news stories as an editor and no retweets as me. I’m shocked that the 1st tweet is from a seven year-old in a language that I guess isn’t her first. Must be more to the story behind her Twitter account than I am aware of. Do her tweets get translated?

    I don’t think just a facebook post is enough to go on for number 2. I would think in order to run a story you would want to speak to at least one of the people involved.

    Regarding number 3, all pictures these days have the possibility of being photoshopped, so always need to be a little incredulous of pictures. Saw an interesting tweet just now of a picture of the shooter in Ankara that makes the statement that the picture looks photoshopped, but the writer says it is not.

    I also don’t think any of these three examples are as easy to verify as the stadium tweet.

    Twitter can be a good tool I imagine for journalists to get a whiff of potential stories, but not much beyond that.

    This post reminds me of the Radiolab episode about the attack at the Westgate Mall in Kenya:

    • Will

      Great episode, great podcast.

    • // I also don’t think any of these three examples are as easy to verify as the stadium tweet.

      Right. I’m not saying they are. But, in theory, ease of verification doesn’t influence responsibility to verify.

  • Rob

    In News Cut We Trust; in other social media, not so much.

  • Sam M

    Does it really matter what the medium is? What if #2 was done with a statement from her “office” or a news conference? How would it be covered if that was the case?

    • Will

      You have to watch out for Russian hackers these days.

  • Bob Sinclair

    You say on #s 1 and 2 that you missed a good story. Ok, isn’t it better to miss a “good story” when you don’t know all of the facts? Can it not be true that sometimes the story gets better once more of the details/facts are known (like #1)? As an editor, (and being a cynic as well) I’d think I’d hold off on these things to make sure I got the story right (even if it is an airliner in the middle of the Hudson).

    And for the record I do not own a Twitter account, so I thankfully am not subject to this.

  • lindblomeagles

    Although many suggest its archaic, the best form of news STILL are actual research oriented reports performed by the scientific, historic, and sometimes the arts communities. When I read something from National Geographic, Popular Mechanic, or the Smithsonian Magazine, the documented information contained within the articles has been verified by reputable people. Social media, on the other hand, is usually, but not always, opinion, which is not necessarily based on neutral facts.

    • Tim

      There’s a difference, though, between a monthly periodical that plans its editorial calendar months (or even over a year) in advance, and a news outlet that publishes or broadcasts throughout the day.

  • LifebloodMN

    I think they could all be used, it’s just a matter of ‘how’ you present the evidence and source. (methodology)
    Always good to review:

  • No. As any editor should know. You should never trust any single-sourced information, without significant couching. Ever.

    That said:

    What both CBS and Yahoo could have done — it’s entirely acceptable and gives all readers and sharers a heads-up — is disclaim their report (if they must) by noting that that it is ‘unverified’ and to give context on the Twitterer — ie: “Does not appear to be a representative of ….” etc.

    So, re: your quiz:
    1. Bana: No. Though I might have, given her report was entirely plausible based on a preponderance of related news pieces by reputable sources. I didn’t because of that, too. It would seem self-evident. So the point was her age. For some reason I can’t fully articulate that is also the reason I didn’t. Her age. It felt too voyeuristic or something.
    2. Omar: Not until after I verified it by searching for and finding related stories in reputable media.
    3. Flight 149: Not until after I verified it by searching for and finding related stories in reputable media.

    I won’t even retweet/repost an information claim my friends have posted unless I have fact-checked. Stunning in this day and age of fake news that professional media would be so sloppy!

    In other cases, where it’s not the information on the Tweet that is being covered as factual news, but, rather more about the Tweeter or the tone of whatever, yes. Perhaps. But, I think news media (and all) need some lessons regarding when and where a story should be anchored by or around a Tweet.

  • BJ

    Yeah a bunch of my friends all were joking around on twitter and NBC sports ran a story based on it.