The tragic death of Cullman attorney Stephen Griffith this week shed light on a growing problem in reporting by news organizations and the public reaction via social media.
As Times reporters and editors gathered information to provide an accurate story about what happened at Griffith’s home Monday night, social media was aflame with speculation. Many of the postings, which included the victim’s name, the condition of his wife and a variety of details law enforcement had yet to release, were in the comment section on our early social media reports of the incident.
As the investigation progressed, many of the early social media posts proved to be true, for the most part. The Times had similar information but did not release it because law enforcement had not confirmed it.
Social media, which is a way of life for many now, is a double-edged sword that provides a quick means of communicating with a large number of people. For reaching family members or friends, that’s good. For sharing information not confirmed or inaccurate, it can create problems and hardships in the same manner as gossip. For news organizations, social media is a valuable tool that has forever changed information delivery.
In today’s constantly-changing media industry and multiple platforms, The Times understands the importance of its social media audience, which is growing daily. Our most recent digital analytics show cullmantimes.com had more than 726,000 page views in May by 188,372 unique IP addresses. As of Thursday, we have 32,792 people who like (or follow) our Facebook page and 8,417 Twitter followers. And, every time we post a breaking news alert, nearly 2,000 people who have signed up for this free service get information sent instantly to their inbox.
With analytics that rank first among Cullman County media outlets, we realize if we make a social media post, it can go viral, especially in our specific market, within minutes.
We also understand our responsibility of getting information correct. Too often, the random and unconfirmed details floating in the cyber sphere, including information that might be in the comment area of one of our posts, are a result of social media followers spontaneously posting comments or opinion based on little or no facts - unfortunately, that’s how social media works.
Using social media to spread false information, including rumors and hearsay comments, is wrong and disrespectful to those negatively impacted by the posts. Additionally, it creates a headache for law enforcement and the news media working to provide accurate information.
As news began to be reported Monday night about the death of Griffith and his assailant, Patrick Walker, the details were sketchy as the investigation was just starting. Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry called a press conference to provide a few details that were immediately reported on The Times website, including video. At that time, Gentry, rightly so, did not release any names, which is a common practice until family members can be notified.
The coroner is typically attempting to reach family members so they do not first read about the incident on social media or on a news site. The news of a tragic event is devastating to families, and newspapers, such as The Times, respectfully honor when law enforcement officials withhold information until proper notification can be made, even when we know the name of the victim.
Today, once the information is officially released, The Times works diligently to post it quickly on our website, which is linked to Facebook and Twitter.
As a news organization with professional reporters and editors, we will continue to provide news in a timely and accurate manner with respect to the people and our community. Although we want to provide information first, it’s more important to get it right and attributed to a credible source.
Again, we appreciate and will continue to increase our social media engagement for the purpose of news delivery and recognize the value of our digital platforms. We also encourage others to be judicious about posting speculative information that may be harmful to others.
Social media engagement is a great way to connect and learn, but we should all be cautious about presuming a post is accurate without the necessary attribution.
Remember, once you hit the send button, the information, right or wrong, is in the public domain and can be difficult to retrieve or remove.