Twitter in a Time of Tragedy

I remember when the Boston Marathon bombing happened. I was at my desk, going about what should have been a normal, uneventful day. I was probably working on a story, turning to my Twitter feed every few minutes for a distraction. Buzzfeed had a list of funny Kim Kardashian quotes, Jimmy Fallon was playing a game with his celebrity guest, Food 52 had just tweeted out a new recipe, and that stupid Bob’s Burger’s parody account I follow was making puns—like I said, a pretty normal day. And then the first tweet went live: Explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

This is the world we live in today, where a single moment can change your life, and for those of us on the sidelines, we have to watch the chaos unfold from the scrolling feed of our social media accounts.

Since the launch of Twitter in 2006, the term ‘real-time reporting’ has taken a precedence, requiring journalists to report the news as soon as they possibly can, starting first with a brief, 140 character post, which buys them about five minutes to get the first news story onto their website. That initial tweet is crucial though—social media has created the desire for immediate gratification in younger generations, and once we see that first tweet, we are left craving more.

For professional news sources, juggling that immediacy with accuracy has become somewhat of an art form. Keeping up with competition requires breaking the story before everyone else, reporting as the news develops, but if you get something wrong, the backlash seems to be greater than in the past. I remember with the Sandy Hook shooting, an incredibly sensitive story to cover, how accuracy was so important. And yet so many news sources were putting incorrect information out there—some made the situation seem less drastic, others made it seem worse. It took me a while to sift through the chatter to find the sources that were actually taking the time to confirm their report before putting it out there (which ironically was the BBC, who tweeted information five minutes after the other US sites).

So what exactly prompted me to discuss Twitter’s role in breaking news? Well, unfortunately, once again we have to watch tragedy unfold, this time at the Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., where a shooter opened fire around 10:38 a.m. PCT. By 11:38 a.m. PCT, reports confirmed the shooter was in custody, while the death toll stood at 10, with another 20 plus reported injured. The numbers are still rising, and I’m sure by the 10 p.m. news we’ll have a better idea of what happened. Until then, we wait and watch the reports trickle in over social media.

It’s heartbreaking to hear about another shooting. My good friend, Michele Richinick, over at Newsweek has spent much of her career writing about gun laws, and how our nation is shaped by gun-related tragedy. Today, she tweeted out that this is the 142nd reported shooting at a school since Sandy Hook.

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That’s 142 times that lives were shattered. Students who should be rushing to finish their homework assignments instead were rushing to escape; to save their lives. We can argue for years about gun control, but the fact still remains that our current laws aren’t working. You can always read more about my thoughts on gun control here.

What was unique to the coverage of this most recent horror though, was the tweet from one website. I’ve complained before about how it irritates me that during a time of crises, many Twitter handles are still posting links to completely irrelevant things, and it always makes me angry. While I wait for more updates about the situation, I can’t stand the tweets about a new hair product, or how some online personality ‘can’t even’ over the latest poster of Zach Efron. The man buns and national food holidays that occupy our airspace on regular days suddenly become obsolete during times of tragedy. Which was why this tweet from Refinery29 will stick out:

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They get it. They understand the importance of sensitivity. Because when the world stops, you suddenly realize what really matters.

Update, Friday, October 2, 2015, 10:15 a.m.:

This shooting has brought up a discussion topic that breaks my heart–mass shootings have become so common in our country, that we have a routine for it. You could sense the anger in Obama’s speech as he went through, yet again, the same speech about senseless violence killing innocent Americans. “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said, making a clear statement that action needs to be taken regarding gun control. Because, for F*CK sake, why the hell does this keep happening?!

I also HIGHLY recommend you read this piece from Newsweek reporter Polly Mosendz on the routine of a reporter covering a mass shooting. “Mass death is prewritten in America,” she tells us. This is where we stand, America.