Crisis Reporting in the Age of Social Media

In the high stakes business of trauma reporting, social media has become a powerful and controversial journalistic tool. We are also only just beginning to understand how to use it. A special report in advance of our symposium on Monday, April 22, in conjunction with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, at Columbia Journalism School: Sandy Hook and Beyond: Breaking News, Trauma and Aftermath.

A few days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, a status update popped up in my Facebook newsfeed. A New York-based reporter, who was freelancing for a well-respected magazine, had gone up to Newtown to join the throngs of journalists covering the tragedy. His post, publicly available to all Facebook users, contained an excerpt from an email an unidentified Newtown resident had sent him, praising his coverage of the events. The praise was thoroughly deserved. The journalist had been thorough, measured and sensitive in his work. But as the “likes” stacked up, the enormity of what had just happened—27 dead, 20 of them small children—seemed to fade into the background of a now familiar chorus known, almost ironically, as the “newsfeed.”

Covering trauma in the epoch of social media has its obvious challenges. Many of the errors that make their way into the national news begin in the digital sphere. In the first few hours following the Sandy Hook shootings, some reporters identified Adam Lanza’s brother Ryan as the shooter, a major error that caught and spread like wildfire through national media outlets. But there are also other more complex issues social media presents to journalists in high-stakes stories with powerful emotional resonance. In Steubenville, Ohio, journalists had to decide how to protect the privacy of a rape victim and alleged assailants in the face of critical information gleaned from Twitter accounts. In Newtown, some reporters, eager to gain access to victim’s families, sent messages to them via Twitter, raising questions about what constitutes an invasion of privacy, particularly in a time of distress and loss.

Are the consequences of making mistakes in trauma reporting graver than in other forms? Should there be different standards regarding reporting with social media and if so, what should they be?

"Journalists have to almost look at social media as a physical space," said Liz Heron, director of social media and engagement at the Wall Street Journal. In this sense, they should conduct themselves as they would do in any other new community: with sensitivity and respect. Easier said than done. Heron's posts about Sandy Hook received criticism from some of her followers who felt that posting about it on her personal social media accounts sensationalized the story. Her experience illustrated an emerging journalistic problem: the blurring of personal and professional identities online. In many reporting situations, the use of social media by reporters has opened the news gathering process to the public, and helped allow citizens to be the watchdogs of the press. But in the case of trauma reporting, things start to get murky.

Heron said reporters have to tread with caution when opening up their personal emotions in a public space like social media. "There is room to do that, but you have to be careful not to come across as pandering," she said.

From a psychological perspective, however, being ultra-cautious when posting online during a tragedy is crucial for other reasons. "I do believe people have been harmed by misinformation online," Stanford University psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, M.D., said. Aboujaoude, who's written about the effect of the internet on the psyche in his book "Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the e-Personality," says that mistakes made online have a specific psychological impact on the victims of trauma.

Aboujaoude distinguished these mistakes from those made in print media. He said that there's a greater degree of permanency and visibility with online news accounts. "Whether it's a malicious misrepresentation or an innocent mistake, it's out there waiting to be Googled," he said.

Even if a story is true, people who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder face a difficult challenge in this era. Mental health experts advise them to avoid reminders and triggers of the original trauma. But as Aboujaoude noted, “If every time they Google themselves they see the situation relived, it becomes difficult to avoid those reminders and cues."


In a long, narrow room in the bowels of the Austin Convention Center at the South by South West Interactive Festival, Brandon Brewer, a former public information officer for the US Coast Guard spoke to a standing-room only crowd. At a festival where people duck in and out of panels on technology’s avant-garde, hardly anyone got out of their seats, journalists included. The session was on disaster communications and it was lead by Coast Guard officers, who explained what disaster recovery is like from the communications responders' standpoint.

In the journalism community, despite the difficulty and increasing frequency of disaster coverage, there simply aren’t enough people talking about how to handle it. During Brewer's 22 year career as a second-responder, he was responsible for developing communications plans in times of crisis by going into disaster zones and setting up communications centers. He said that at the heart of crisis communications is a clear line of command, delivered with a unified voice. “Everyone needs to speak with one voice in time of crisis, not competing for audience attention,” Brewer said.

While it’s not common for journalists to be invited to a response agency’s planning meeting, Brewer would like to see journalists take part in the large-scale exercises these teams carry out, to get a clearer sense of what goes on from the first responders' perspective. It’s a sensitive topic, as the work of journalists requires independence from agencies, particularly in times of crisis. But he said that at least he hoped journalists and editors would consider building and maintaining relationships with first responders “just like a regular beat” so that the communications lines and understanding would be as familiar as possible in times of crisis. Ana Visneski, a public affairs officer for the US Coast Guard, said that the most important thing journalists could do to help the efforts of first responders was to let citizens know where to find safe zones.


When reporters hunted for clues to the identity of the Sandy Hook shooter, they turned to Facebook. Armed with a name, they flicked through the equivalent of a turbo-charged White Pages and stumbled upon the profile of Ryan Lanza. BuzzFeed and Gawker were quick off the mark to publish photos of the alleged suspect and linked to his Facebook profile. The real shooter was in fact Adam Lanza, Ryan’s brother. Allegedly, it was law enforcement officials who initially had supplied the wrong the name. But regardless of where it started, the photo circulated far and wide before the mistake could be corrected.

It was this spread of misinformation that stuck out as among the sorest mistakes during the Sandy Hook coverage, and much of the dissemination happened through Twitter. One of the biggest criticisms hurled at social media, Twitter in particular, is that it’s a ripe breeding ground for rumors to mushroom.

"It's the big, bad genie coming out of the bottle which you can't get back in," Brewer said. The paramount rule for public information officers is never to put anything out to the public until they are as sure as they can possibly be that it's correct. "The Coast Guard's maxim is 'maximum disclosure, minimum delay." Sometimes this means holding back on information they believe to be as good as true, but they wait just to make absolutely certain.

While journalists are also taught to live by this maxim, social media has intensified the pressure to get ahead of a story. This week we have seen multiple mistakes in coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, from claims of much higher numbers of dead to misreporting the arrest of a suspect.

"The culture now is of expectation of immediate communication," said Hanson Hosein, who worked as a foreign correspondent for NBC covering the Middle East before taking a job in digital communications at the University of Washington. Hosein said that responding to the need for fast information should take the form of reinforcing the idea of the reporter or media outlet as the listening post. "The first thing you do is say you're aware of the situation and are trying to find out more," he said.

Heron, at the Wall Street Journal, would also like to see reporters slow down their reporting in these situations. Where she sees the journalist's opportunity to add value in trauma reporting is in the capacity of the "debunker." When Twitter is awash with questionable tidbits of information, if the journalist can intervene and confirm something is not true, they're doing as great a service as they are when they break news.

Christopher Gandin Le from Emotion Technology, a suicide prevention organization, believes it's important to hold off on information until it's verified for slightly different reasons. "Knowing the method of death and other details can always have the potential for a contagion effect," Le said.

A specialist in online outreach programs for trauma-informed care, Le believes the biggest harm a reporter can do is not in the immediate, but in the time following a trauma. "When the sand bags are gone, that's when people say, what happened to my life," Le said. It is at that point that the information about what to do, where to go and how to seek help is absolutely critical.

Journalists today work in increasingly jumbled networks and muddled digital realms, and their relationships to these spaces and communities are constantly shifting. When it comes to trauma coverage, the parts are moving at a barely-graspable rate, and the stakes keep getting higher. How we can adapt to the monumental challenge we face isn’t to be found solitarily clutching for it in a darkened room. Rather, this is merely the beginning of a process the whole journalism community must embark on together.