Opinion

The Trump rule of social media reporting: tweet first, verify later

Tweets that make the president look boorish go viral. Subsequent corrections usually fall flat

Trump NAFTA Law 20171110

Each fantastical claim tweeted out to great fanfare and then quietly retracted hours later is one more hit against the reputation of news media. (Andrew Harnik/Canadian Press)

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Did you hear about President Donald Trump not wearing a translation headset during Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni's G7 speech this past May? It's likely you did: the tweet from BBC correspondent James Landale suggesting as much garnered over 22,000 retweets and was picked up by media outlets worldwide.

Less likely to be seen, however, was Landale's correction that noted that Trump had, in fact, been wearing an in-ear device. It received fewer than 200 retweets.

Or perhaps the one about boorish Trump indelicately dumping a box of fish food while feeding koi with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; an incident that netted thousands of retweets for several high-profile journalists? As it turned out, Trump simply followed Prime Minister Abe's lead, as the unedited clip revealed — a correction that, again, netted fewer than one hundred social media shares in some cases.

Call it the Trump Law of Social Media Reporting: a rule that mandates that a fantastical, almost too-good-to-be-true breaking news tweet about the president will receive tens of thousands of retweets and viral infamy, while its subsequent correction will generate a mere handful in comparison. Needless to say, in an age of rampant mistrust of the media, journalists must be alive to the reputational harm caused by this sloppy report-first, verify-later style of reporting.

Such careless journalism was on full display last week. Brian Ross of ABC News dropped a bombshell scoop that "candidate" Trump had directed former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to make contact with Russian officials. The news sent shockwaves through newsrooms, caused chaos in the markets and was retweeted over 26,000 from ABC's official Twitter account. The correction — eight hours later — that the direction came from president-elect Trump has clocked just over 3,200 retweets by comparison.

It seems there is an example for nearly every major event involving this administration: a tweet by the New York Times implying that fewer New England Patriots attended the traditional Super Bowl victors' visit to the White House this year earned over 51,000 shares. Its correction, that the delegation was roughly the same as in previous years — only a few hundred.

With journalists racing to solidify Puerto Rico as "Trump's Katrina," New York Times writer Paul Krugman sent out a tweet blaming Trump for a non-existent cholera outbreak on the island, a message that garnered over 15,000 retweets.  His correction that there was, in fact, no such outbreak, has netted just 598.

And as Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, erroneous reports that Trump press secretary Sarah Sanders attempted to pass off a stock photo of a pecan pie as her own soon went viral. The original tweet from a journalist netted hundreds of retweets and spawned countless retellings from users; the correction, however, went virtually unnoticed.

The reason why reporters seem to have such quick Twitter fingers isn't hard to understand: when the line between professional reporting and personal political beliefs becomes blurred, which seems to have increasingly become the case under Trump, the clarity provided by objective analysis is lost. Thus, when a story comes along that fits a particular narrative – Trump the boorish clod, Trump the heartless, corrupt hypocrite, Sarah Sanders the inveterate liar – a reporter's personal beliefs are immediately validated and accordingly, the story is blasted out across social media without even a basic fact-check.

There is also perhaps a more troubling undercurrent at play than simple bias. Media outlets are under intense pressure to generate as many likes, retweets and other social media interactions as possible. The race to break news on a topic with a high likelihood of going viral – meaning anything to do with the current president – inherently leads to sloppy reporting.

When seconds can mean the difference between a "fire" tweet going viral worldwide versus a humdrum post gaining a few perfunctory retweets, journalists eschew taking the time to fact-check before posting. And why not? With readers' miniscule attention spans and the breakneck speeds of current news cycles, there appear to be few consequences — in the short-term, at least.

But there are long-term consequences: each fantastical claim tweeted out to great fanfare and then quietly retracted hours later is one more hit against the reputation of news media. Considering the mileage Trump got out of demonizing reporters and "fake news" during the election, it is best for journalists to stop giving the president additional ammunition. Trump's Law of Social Media Reporting should be extinguished sooner rather than later.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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