Big events can trigger spread of ‘fake news’

We all read and watched in horror as news of the grisly massacre in Las Vegas unfolded last week.

Firing from a 32nd-floor hotel suite one week ago, mass murderer Stephen Paddock killed 59 people and wounded more than 500 others. Paddock had multiple fully automatic weapons, and he was firing into a dense crowd of about 22,000 people gathered on the Las Vegas strip to enjoy a country music concert where Jason Aldean was performing.

The developing news story had Americans’ emotions running high, varying from anger, fear and heartbreak, with most of us focusing on one question: Why?

The story of the Las Vegas mass shooting continues to unfold, and we’re all still learning details that might provide clues to Paddock’s motivation. The national media has been asking good questions and, along with detailing the investigation, also has been sharing the stories of heroism among the victims and details about the lives of those who perished.

But despite all the good reporting and legitimate journalism that has been going on, the chance always exists for readers and viewers to confuse commentators’ opinions as fact, or for incorrect information to be disseminated when a news story is breaking quickly.

Criminal and psychological experts spent the week expressing their beliefs about triggers and the shooter’s possible blossoming mental illness. There also was discussion about the possible involvement of accomplices. These things are still being investigated and they may or may not be true. There also was early speculation on whether this was a terrorist attack that might have involved ISIS. That no longer is believed to be true.

Nowadays, the risk is also great for “fake news” — that is, fabricated information — to be spread through social media. At one point last week, false stories swept across social media linking Paddock to Antifa, a far-left movement, and sharing fabricated screen grabs of tweets falsely attributed to President Donald Trump.

It’s that viral spread of fake news that makes me very nervous.

As a newspaper editor, of course I believe deeply in the value of good journalism and the urgency of getting information to the public that deserves to know. Still, even I admit that in chaotic and fast-developing situations like the Vegas shooting, information is sometimes released that is inaccurate. Sources may not have all the facts, and journalists racing to share information sometimes simply get it wrong. I’m not condoning erroneous reporting, but it is a reality that journalists must consistently work to prevent. My staff likely would tell you they often have heard me say, “I’d rather be late than be wrong.” That’s because I believe accuracy and balance are the two most important components to any news story that never should be sacrificed, no matter what time element or deadline might complicate things.

The immediate and instantaneous release of news that occurs today via the never-ending barrage of national TV news, competition among media and spread of news via social media and online reporting makes the rush to report stories even more urgent and, unfortunately, riskier. When incorrect information — or even speculation shared by so-called experts — is disseminated, it spreads quickly online.

That’s why it’s imperative for consumers of news to be very aware that information spread on social media and other less-than-legitimate news sources, or opinion and commentary, does not equate to accurate news. Look for attribution and reliable sources in news stories, and don’t believe everything you see on social media. Verify facts by checking legitimate media outlets, like the Tribune Chronicle.

Here, we take very seriously our responsibility to ensure that news is reported accurately, and we want you to know that you can feel confident about the information you read in the Tribune Chronicle’s print edition or online at www.tribtoday.com.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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