Holding People Accountable using Social Media

A quick segment in the news last week (June 18) mentioned that Brian Williams is going back to the anchor desk as a “breaking news anchor” on MSNBC.  It struck me as odd that a news reporter who embellished the news (his experience on a helicopter in Iraq) would be allowed back on the air, let alone trusted to report breaking news.  Who would ever believe what he has to say, especially if the breaking news being reported requires us to take action or move to shelter? 

Brian Williams’ fall from grace is a direct result of social media.  A New York Times article  says that twelve years ago soldiers tried to correct Mr. Williams’ story without success. Social media gave them a fresh opportunity to report what actually happened, and the soldiers took advantage of the moment.  They should know.  They were the soldiers flying the helicopter Brian Williams claimed he was on when it was attacked!

Why am I making such a big deal about this? Because honesty is important.  So are the ethical values of accountability, trust and integrity.  When we have an emergency, the place we turn to is the media for news and information, as well as guidance on actions we might need to take to keep ourselves safe.  Brian Williams destroyed these values in media and in his reporting. Brian Williams broke the cardinal rule of reporters – The reporter should not be part of the story and should remain objective in reporting the news. To put him back on the air in any capacity, particularly for a position such as reporting breaking news that requires the utmost honesty and integrity, is in my view insulting.

As the NY Times article states, public trust is “at or near historic lows”. The NY Times reporter suggests this is partly due to the rise of social media.  I happen to believe that social media is becoming a tool for holding people accountable for their actions, but it can be used as a tool to abuse this power just as easily. 

Social media and the Internet allow us to check facts with the swipe of a touchscreen. I learned this through teaching classes – whenever I’d mention an article I read that related to a concept I was teaching cell phones would pop out and someone in class would tell everyone the name of the article and what it said specifically!  On the flip side, because we are so obsessed with “scooping” the news and being the first to report, social media offers the chance to put something… anything out to the public – and reader beware! It is up to us to discern the facts and decide for ourselves what information is reliable and what is not. Brian Williams’ actions further erode the importance and value of truth and trustworthy reporting of facts. It is a very good thing Walter Cronkite is not alive to see this!

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