'Getting ahead of the story' best course of action

Thursday, December 20, 2018

A staff member recently recounted a conversation with a friend, who expressed frustration about his ignorance of several important area stories.

The reporter was puzzled, since she had personally written stories about some of those stories, and the others had appeared in prominent positions in this newspaper.

“Where do you get your news?” she asked.

“Facebook” was the reply.

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other social media are increasingly a source of “news” for many of us, but recent events show just how dangerous that is.

Recent, reputable investigations have shown how useful social media are to foreign powers such as Russia, who have quickly and effectively adapted them to longstanding propaganda efforts to sway public opinion.

A recent email threat caused McCook officials to evacuate the school out of an abundance of caution. When another potential threat was made against the Cambridge school, officials decided it had been addressed effectively and issued a general Facebook statement that has since been taken down.

Court records reported Wednesday, however, showed that three current students and a former student have now been charged with felony terroristic threats.

Officials can’t be blamed for trying to maintain order, but if basic questions are left unanswered, the public has always been quick to fill in the answers, regardless of any basis in fact.

Unlike traditional media, which must stand by their reporting, Facebook offers a wide audience to anyone with a smartphone, without regard to whether they have an agenda or any degree of knowledge or honesty.

Thus, rumors, half-truths and, yes, fake news can spread at the speed of light.

While it may be tempting to try to shut down public discussion of any incident, it’s much wiser to “get ahead of the story” and release as much information as can be done responsibly before the gossip mongers have a chance to spread speculation and falsehoods.

As a new phenomenon, Facebook’s proper role in commerce, privacy and politics is far from settled, and the company could face severe restrictions, especially in foreign markets, if it does not accept more responsibility for its business practices and culpability in the manipulation of elections.

For their part, traditional media must resist the temptation to lower journalistic standards in order to compete with social media.

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