Best practices for reporting through social media during a mass shooting

With each new mass shooting or terrorist attack, the norms of reporting and publishing information about them seem to shift in dramatic ways.

We know the reason: smartphones and social media. The combination means information is coming from all sides, fast and furious — and too often wrong or misleading.

We saw that again during the high school shooting in South Florida that killed 17 people on Feb. 14. As word of the shooting spread, so did fake tweets, dramatic and graphic videos from inside and outside the school, and text messages shared via screenshots.

Editors now find themselves asking: What’s real? What’s relevant? How can we get information? Where did that video come from?

Let’s take a closer look to try to sort out some best practices for dealing with social media or user-generated content if you find yourself dealing with a major traumatic event.

Reporting

  • Consider using your publication’s official account rather than individual reporter accounts to contact people who might be witnesses. (More on this below.)
  • While there is no firm rule about when to contact an eyewitness, the consensus among digital first experts is that reporters should err strongly on the side of safety for the person they are contacting. If an active shooting is still going on, the witness could be distracted by the barrage of messages, or the shooter could be monitoring social media.
  • Go easy. One ask on Facebook and a couple of asks on Twitter is plenty. Respect the tone and tenor of the platform.
  • Don’t just read that person’s one tweet. Go through their feed and see if there is context. They might have already tweeted or posted permission to use the information in another post.
  • Always aim for interviews in person or on the phone. In-person interviews lead to better, clearer information. Mediated interviews through email or via text messages often lack tone and context.
  • Use shared documents to coordinate with everyone you work with. It’s unnecessary to have more than one person from a news organization reaching out to the same person on the same platform.
  • Staff up on social media with experienced editors. You’ll need someone to be pushing out information, but also someone watching for relevant information that might be useful.
  • Be honest about who you are, who you are working for and where the information will appear. Never deceive a source, either overtly or by omission.
  • Be clear about the purpose of your story. Are you trying to establish a timeline, profile people involved, hold authorities accountable? If the focus of your story changes, call the sources back and let them know to ensure their contribution remains in context.

The Online News Association has this code of ethics for gathering content from social media.

Editing and verifying

  • Do not tweet or retweet information you haven’t verified.
  • Stop and have a discussion before you automatically link to a video that’s graphic. Discuss your reasoning behind this so you can be honest with your readers about why you are doing it.

Fighting off trolls

During the shooting in Florida, a  Miami Herald reporter was attacked viciously on Twitter when someone created fake tweets purporting to be from her that asked insensitive questions. Unfortunately these days, it’s all too easy to create a fake tweet using services such as Tweenio or Tweetfake (and these are just the current ones we know of; there could be more).

Be aware of them, and have your social media editors watch for anything that seems awry. Be proactive about dealing with it before it gets out of hand. It's another strong reason to use an official account and not an individual account.

During the interview

  • Be extra cautious when approaching teenagers. Children are more vulnerable than adults. Consider whether a teenager needs an adult or another advocate present during an interview. At the least, give them a business card and ask them to share it with their parents or guardian.
  • Ask the right questions. Open ended, descriptive questions work well. They can include: What did you see? What did you do? What do you know about the people involved? How do you know these things?
  • Avoid questions that ask a source to speculate beyond what he or she knows.

Related stories and courses

  • Profile picture for user kellymcbride

    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.

  • Profile picture for user AGlover

    Anne Glover

    Anne Glover worked as an editor at the Tampa Bay Times for more than 33 years, and has been a visiting faculty member at Poynter teaching copy editing and leadership.

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