Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

April 24, 2013

Social media is great, but lessons can still be learned from a comic book

— — “With great power comes great responsibility.” There is some debate over whether this particular statement came from former President Franklin D. Roosevelt or from the pages of a classic comic book. But it’s a meaningful statement that rings true to this very day.

Many will simply point to Uncle Ben, and the sage warning he gave a teenage Peter Parker in the now classic “Amazing Fantasy 15.”  Peter Parker, who had gained incredible power and abilities after being bitten by a radioactive spider, ignored his uncle’s advice and attempted to use his newly acquired abilities for fame and fortune while donning the “Spider Man” outfit. It was a decision that he would soon regret. In his youthful arrogance, the hero-in-the-making failed to help police nab a burglar that was within his grasp. That burglar would later go on to kill Parker’s uncle — or so the comic book legend goes.

So that particular phrase — regardless of whether FDR or Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee said it first — still rings true to this very day. And it holds newly discovered relevance for those of us in the news media business after witnessing one of the biggest blunders ever last week by the 24-hour cable news networks.

By now, we all know what happened last week. In the race to be the first to nab the big story, two big cable networks reported erroneous information, and were painfully slow to retract the incorrect information.

Making matters worse was the fact that the Associated Press picked up this same incorrect information after it appeared on television. CNN got it wrong first. Then Fox News got it wrong. Then a couple of the broadcast networks reported the same incorrect information.

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In today’s day and age of social media, it is possible to get information out almost immediately to thousands upon thousands of people. This is actually a good thing. We’ve embraced the magic of social media here at the Daily Telegraph, and it’s become a part of our regular newsroom routine. Our online website is updated constantly and the same goes for our popular Facebook page. We have our own Twitter accounts, and we do daily news digest email blasts, as well as breaking news updates. We write stories for both our online and print editions.

 The manhunt for the two Boston terror suspects, and the ultimate capture of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was another reminder of the power of social media. (As well as the importance of all of those hidden and somewhat controversial security cameras in just about every neighborhood nowadays). Once the mug shots of the Tsarnaev brothers went viral, there was no place left on American soil for the two men to hide. Every person in this country with access to a cell phone, mobile device or home computer had seen the photographs of the two bombers. It was a good example of what went right last week amid the big mistakes.

As one television analyst commented last week, it’s a whole lot harder now to commit a crime like the Boston terror attacks thanks to the rise of social media — and the influx of hidden and not-so-hidden security cameras in cities and neighborhoods across this country.

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So how did the cable news networks come to the conclusion that someone had been arrested before they were actually arrested? It’s hard to say. But they failed to exercise due diligence in checking, double checking and triple checking their facts before going on the air with an erroneous story. The old Journalism 101 class still rings as true today as it did 20 years ago. Just the facts. The “who, what, when, where and why” — always attributed by a reliable source. If your source is not reliable, or is unknown, you take a great risk reporting what he or she may be saying.

So yes, the 24-hour cable networks could learn a lesson or two from the pages of a classic comic book. They have been afforded great power — and it is a power that comes with great responsibility.

Their viewers expect nothing less — even in this day and age of near instantaneous social media communications.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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