I first went into TV journalism in 1995. I joined Reuters and worked exclusively at GMTV on the programme and TV bulletin side. One day, we were told about a special computer that had been brought into the news room. It was connected to the “Internet.”
Up until that point, I had found my stories from sitting in courts, talking to people, the wire services and going through previous newspaper cuttings or TV packages.
But we were told this computer would change everything. It didn’t immediately because it needed people to propagate it with information. I learnt of Diana’s death at my computer when it dropped on the Press Association wire. But change it did. And with the introduction of rolling news and an increasingly competitive and convergent media market, so did our news judgement.
With the advent of social networks, so much more personal information on ‘people of interest’ could be discovered. No need for phone hacking. These were pictures, films and other content uploaded willingly by the public.
So when the heart crushingly sad deaths at Sandy Hook were announced, paid and citizen journalists around the world tried to be the first with the latest line.
Everyone wanted to reveal the killer’s ID. And when CNN quoted a source saying a ‘Ryan Lanza’ was the suspect, hundreds of thousands of professional and amateur hacks scoured Facebook and Twitter to tweet or broadcast the first photo.
One feed belonging to Ryan Lanza was held up to be the killer’s because he’d tweeted in the past that he got a bit depressed from time to time.
Then pictures of a Ryan Lanza from Newtown but living in Hoboken, were culled from his Facebook page and broadcast on CNN, Fox and CBS as the suspect.
Ryan Lanza was trending on Twitter, his tweets were psychoanalysed and many were quick to accept him as the killer as not only were they seeing it on their timelines but also on their TV screens.
Except it was completely untrue. It was what I call a ‘twitch-hunt.’
The Ryan Lanza on Twitter was just a BMXer now facing a stream of abuse and people saying he should seek mental treatment anyway!
And the Ryan on Facebook took to posting his innocence after receiving death threats from around the world. He knew who to blame.
Because it wasn’t Ryan Lanza. It now seems it could have been Adam Lanza.
The police had never officially released the dead suspect’s name because they were still trying to establish the facts and his identity.
But they were clearly too slow for the lightening fast media environment.
In fact the Ryan on Facebook turned out to be Adam Lanza’s brother and the first he knew his mother was dead was falsely being alleged by the TV networks that he killed her.
Before the internet and rolling news, we had time to consider the facts, establish the truth and then publish our stories.
Now the truth is secondary to the need to be first with something that resembles it.
It doesn’t matter if their are casualties along the way to breaking news. The old adage of ‘not wrong for long’ is now the excuse for those who fail to wait to corroborate.
But social media isn’t breaking news.
It has broken it.