Thou Shalt Not Stoop to Political Point-Scoring

A journalist’s guide to tweeting during a crisis.

The outter perimeter near Massachusetts Avenue and Newbury Street is secured by police after two explosive devices detonated at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15 in Boston.

Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

If you were watching television on 9/11, then you probably remember the early initial reports—later proven false—that a car bomb had exploded outside of the State Department. This mistaken bit of speculation, which spread widely during that day’s chaos, was later used as “evidence” by those who accused the government and media of complicity in the attacks that brought down the World Trade Center.

Twitter has only made the business of news gathering and sharing in the wake of a disaster more treacherous. If, as a wise journalist once said, journalism is the first rough draft of history, then Twitter is the first rough draft of journalism. During nightmarish events like today’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, the micro-blogging service is both the cause of and solution to a whole lot of journalistic problems. Soon after details started to trickle in about the Boston attacks, George W. Bush’s former press secretary Ari Fleischer noted this murkiness with some smart rules for responding to a crisis as a member of the press, a newsreader, and an official government spokesperson:

Fleischer’s advice is wise, but as the voice behind Slate’s Twitter feed, I have a few more thoughts about what journalists, news organizations, and anyone else with a Twitter account should do during a national tragedy like what happened today in Boston. First, media outlets need to turn off their automated Twitter feeds to ensure that frivolous and/or off-topic items don’t get sent out by mistake. You don’t want to be tweeting about the tax benefits of the state of Texas while limbs are being amputated in Boston if you’re @GovPerry, or—ahem—the latest “Dear Prudence” column if you’re @Slate.

Second, use first-person eyewitness accounts and official sources like the Boston Police department’s Twitter account or official press conferences. Always cite these sources directly, and don’t rely on people who’ve heard something on police scanners—a notoriously unreliable source if you’re looking for solid, confirmed information. Though the wire services are typically the most reliable and first to know, they’ll still get plenty of things wrong in the first few hours of a breaking news frenzy. (The AP filed a false report early in the afternoon, which was picked up by Slate and others, indicating that authorities had shut down cellphone service in Boston in order to prevent remote bomb detonations.) Also, look to local sources. The Boston Globe was one of the best sources of verified information and eyewitness accounts on Twitter and the Web in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Finally, keep your tone as serious as the occasion merits, even if you are in the business of opinion journalism or cracking snarky jokes. In managing the Slate Twitter account each day, I try to keep the tone very light. But when something like Boston happens, followers want you to convey whatever valuable and accurate information you can find, not make jokes about an awkwardly worded Reuters tweet.*

Now, here’s a much longer list of what not to do.

First, do not pass on speculation. For much of the day, the New York Post was sharing unconfirmed reports, which were later proven erroneous, that 12 people had been killed in the attack. I actually retweeted BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, one of the smartest and most conscientious journalists on Twitter, and repeated this tidbit on the official Slate account. In hindsight, it would have been wiser for both of us to broadcast that news in more skeptical terms.

At times, I have succumbed to the desire to be the first source to pass along a story, and I’ve gotten burned. Slate was one of the first outlets to tweet out that we had found the likely Facebook page of the man who was then being reported to be the Newtown shooter, Ryan Lanza. Shortly after that report, it was discovered—by, ironically, the New York Post among others—that the shooter wasn’t Ryan, but his brother Adam. In reporting that CNN’s Susan Candiotti had named Ryan as the shooting suspect, I was very cautious to cite a mainstream source. It turned out that the source was wrong, and this was one of the most embarrassing mistakes I’ve made as a journalist.

Which brings us to point number two: Don’t shame people on Twitter for passing on speculation. Because of the nature of breaking news, factual mistakes will be made and everyone will make them. Let he who is without sin cast the first critical tweet. You might find yourself fact-shaming the New York Post one minute, only to pass on an inaccurate report from Reuters the next. Related to this Twitter sin of shaming, avoid declarations of piety and high-mindedness. They sound self-righteous and glib:

Who wrote, and what human being edited this? RT @lauraolin: Really, is that what it shows…

— Andrew Kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) April 15, 2013

[Update: This tweet has since been deleted.]

Third, don’t use a tragedy to make a political point before the facts are even known. Shortly after the attacks, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted this inanity: “explosion is a reminder that ATF needs a director. Shame on Senate Republicans for blocking apptment.” Probably realizing how his snarkiness sounded under the circumstances, Kristof quickly deleted the tweet and called it a “low blow.” On the right, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin sent out this doozy, comparing the national media’s coverage of Boston to its alleged non-coverage of the Kermit Gosnell abortion case:

(This was a shot at Rubin’s Post colleague Sarah Kliff, who tweeted last week that she wasn’t writing about Gosnell because, “I cover policy for the Washington Post, not local crime.”)

A lesser version of this most egregious Twitter sin of political point-scoring is to offer political analysis before there’s any actual information available. On his blog today, Slate’s Dave Weigel summed this point up rather nicely. The early hours are the time for the local news media to do reporting, and the national media to do its best possible job of fact gathering and sharing.

Finally, don’t retweet trolls. This may seem like an obvious one, but it can be hard to control yourself. What Alex Jones says is not news. It’s his job to float outrageous conspiracy theories. And our job is to ignore him.

Read more on Slate about the Boston Marathon bombing.

Correction, April 16, 2013: This article originally misinterpreted a tweet by Gawker’s Caity Weaver as joking that Republicans were going to blame Obama for the attacks. (Return to the corrected sentence.)