By Adi Robertson and Russell Brandom
As with Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombings, and countless other major stories, news of today's shooting at the Los Angeles International Airport was sometimes muddled with misinformation. A hoax tweet led The Globe and Mail to report that outspoken ex-NSA head Michael Hayden had been shot and killed by a "radical Christian group," and an errant LA Times story spread news that the shooter had been a TSA employee, and that he had been shot dead — both claims that were later refuted. But while it's a truism that the world of fast-paced Twitter sound bites have created a powerful but dangerous broadcasting tool, today's games of telephone raise a fairly simple question: how do you organize a coherent story from small, nebulous, or outright incorrect bursts of information?
NBC put out a six-word breaking story, and an audience spread it
Unlike many other cases, the issue here wasn't Twitter's anarchic feed of citizen journalism. If anyone was posting from police scanners or speculating about the identity of the shooter online, it wasn't being repeated by major news outlets. The most egregious blunder, that of The Globe and Mail, was the result of a hoax — and, in retrospect, an extraordinarily obvious one. The outlet picked up a tweet from @HeadlineNews, an account that aped the logo, color scheme, and name of Breaking News. But the account had only one tweet and, at the time of this screenshot, somewhat under 3,000 followers. The identity and purported death of the shooter, meanwhile, was spread by traditional reporting operating on fast-forward. The LA Times reported erroneous information from a source, and other outlets picked it up. NBC put out a six-word breaking story, and an audience spread it.
BREAKING: Sources tell @latimes that LAX shooter was a TSA employee. He was shot dead after killing fellow worker. Post coming.— L.A. Times: L.A. Now (@LANow) November 1, 2013
There's a lot of noise when there should be signal
Short of waiting for an official account hours after the fact, there's no way to absolutely weed out misinformation in breaking news. The problem is that there still seems to be no foolproof, widely accepted best practice for correcting it. Hours after initial reports were refuted, they're still percolating through Twitter. As of this writing, The LA Times' @LANow hasn't deleted the tweet reporting the shooter worked for the TSA and was killed, although it's since retracted both claims. The same goes for CNBC, Vanity Fair, and countless other, smaller outlets. NBC's announcement that the shooter had been killed has 429 retweets; the correction has a little over 100. It would be easy enough to delete the false information, pulling it out of those 429 different user streams, but for whatever reason, it hasn't happened. The result is a chaotic view of what is by now a relatively established set of facts. Even from professional news organizations, there's a lot of noise where there should be signal.
Though it's most obvious on Twitter, this is a thorny issue to navigate with any realtime online news reporting, whatever the medium or the location (here included). Breaking stories are written as they happen, then often rewritten as official accounts, and the process isn't seamless. Reading early online coverage is like watching five hours of breaking TV news in ten minutes; preliminary reports stick around even as they're superseded, and after enough time, it becomes hard to tell when you've tuned in to any one outlet. That doesn't mean the system is inherently broken. The most foolproof online solution right now may be the liveblog, which leaves a chronologically accurate paper trail but privileges up-to-date information. But ultimately, the problem isn't that things can go wrong: It's that we still don't know how to manage when they do.