First vs. Right: The role of social media in the false HIV outbreak at UNR

Photo courtesy of topnews.in

Things got a little crazy at the University of Nevada, Reno last Wednesday when a handful of rumors about a possible HIV outbreak began to spread through social media outlets (I’m going to try my hardest to avoid any ‘viral’ based puns) and ended up as features on local broadcast news affiliates. In order to help clarify what exactly happened, I’ve attempted to put together a comprehensive narrative via Storify (which you can find here and recommend reading if you missed it.)

As one can see, the ‘rumors’ increased dramatically as soon as members of the Nevada Sagebrush began to tweet about it and post details of the story in their Opening the News Facebook group. Although they were careful to use words such as ‘possible’ and ‘rumored,’ most of the responses that I saw ignored those words and assumed that there actually was an HIV outbreak. What I can gather from group messages is that there was some kind of newsletter posted in the bathrooms of Nye Hall, which convinced Sagebrushers to start scouring through the social media landscape.

The allegations of someone trying to spread a sexually-transmitted disease aren’t something to be taken lightly. But even the process of launching an investigation into such a sensitive topic should be taken extremely seriously, and with the upmost caution. What the Nevada Sagebrush did, and more importantly how they went about reporting on this issue, was in my opinion irresponsible and not serving to the interests of their readers. While the rules of social media are constantly evolving and changing, there’s no reason why a serious news organization would publish inquires into rumors on their official social media accounts. To provide some criticism and context, I’m going to go bullet-by-bullet point through this event, and point out what the staff of the Sagebrush should of done to avoid the shitstorm that they partially caused.

  • Unreliable Sources:

It’s one thing to listen to rumors from friends, and then try to look into their veractiy. It’s another level entirely to take something published in a dorm bathroom as anything close to factual. If reporters heard additional rumors about an HIV outbreak, it might of made sense to give someone at Health Services or the dorms a call, but posting questions all over Facebook and Twitter is unlikely to lead to any kind of useful information, and is more likely to cause the kind of panic which happened on Wednesday. Keep any story which has the potential to be this damaging quiet, or the flood of rumors, half-truths and lies can overwhelm a news staff.

  • Suggestive headlines and a failure to update

A few hours after posting the HIV-related statuses on Facebook, a story went up on the Sagebrush website called, “BREAKING NEWS: Investigation over rumored HIV outbreak continues.” Rather than post any information in the story, the page suggests readers visit their Facebook page and ‘Opening the News‘ group. Although the last actual information about the story comes from Wednesday afternoon, the story is still up on the Sagebrush’s website six days later. After a letter from Health Services came out, news reporters on the Sagebrush have not commented or posted any additional information on the group, or on their website. It’s a bit of stretch to say that a rumored HIV investigation is continuing when there is no investigation. While I appreciate the sentiment of having an open group for students to comment and contribute to the Sagebrush, it’s not going to work if the staff doesn’t update, confirm and moderate the page.

These kind of social media mishaps aren’t uncommon. Although it happened on a much larger scale, Onward State got into a similar mess when covering the death of Joe Paterno. As documented in this Poynter article, editors at the site were deceived by an untrue email, and the subsequently false tweet was picked up by @BreakingNews and CBS Sports, both of which reached millions of readers. Subsequent criticism and outcry lead to a kind of infamy for the site’s editors and warning lesson about the power of social media.

Social media is a great tool to reach readers directly- there’s no argument there. What I’m saying is that it’s always better to be right than to be first. Readers commit to a publication when they feel that they can trust what it’s saying. Every error you commit, whether it’s a spelling error in a story down to an erroneous tweet, chips away at the public’s trust for a publication. And in an era of lower profits and decreased readership (especially for small collegiate papers), it’s more important than ever to be factually correct and responsive to the truth.

UPDATE: Turns out I’m not the only one who saw an issue. Enjolie Esteve of the Sagebrush wrote a column for the latest edition of the Sagebrush, detailing her issues with the over-reliance on social media. She hits a lot of the same points that I made, as well as some more unique perspectives. Definitely worth a look.