ABC13 KTRK, in Houston, Texas, published a news story online, as well as a video that aired on their nightly news where they had gained information through social media and fished family members friends list reaching out until someone responded. The story, filled with information based off of comments posted on Facebook was filled with numerous inaccuracies.
“Ethan Barclay-Weberpal grew up in Wisconsin, but we’re learning more about him from friends here in Houston,” Erica Simon, the ABC13 reporter, wrote.
Barclay-Weberpal was not friends with anyone in Houston, nor did he have family there, Casey Barclay, Barclay-Weberpal’s mother, said.
“Family members say Ethan was well-known and liked and now they are grieving the loss of their only son” Simon wrote.
Barclay-Weberpal had four siblings, according to his obituary, “[…] his 4 siblings – Logan, Dylan, Abigail, and Alexander,” published by the Whitcomb-Lynch funeral home, in Janesville, Wisconsin, where he was buried.
The news station took their information from a Facebook post made by Barclay-Weberpal’s father when he announced the death of his son.
“It’s with excruciating sadness and tears in my eyes that I’m writing this – my only son, my own blood, Marine PFC Ethan Andrew Barclay-Weberpal, was killed yesterday morning at Camp Pendleton, CA,” Scott Weberpal posted.
The news article and video was filled with pictures copied directly off of Facebook, and the interview was from a friend of a friend’s step mother’s husband who happened to live in Houston, said Barclay. The man interviewed had never met Barclay-Weberpal, nor had he even visited Houston.
News outlets using social media as a credible source is becoming a more prevalent problem as information is becoming available in bulk on the sites first.
In a study conducted by Cision at George Washington University, it was found that 65 percent of journalist admit to using social media as a way to gain information when writing a story.
It was also reported that only 49 percent believe that, “social media suffers from a lack of fact- checking, verification and reporting standards,” according to the survey.
The issue surrounding using social media as a reliable source goes back to the basic code of ethics presented by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). It clearly states that journalist should seek truth and report it, meaning that they take personal responsibility in ensuring that their work is fact-checked to the best of their ability.
When professionals stray from the code of ethics it creates distrust in the media as well as sets a bad precedent for what is acceptable in reporting.
Meredith Cummings, an instructor of journalism at The University of Alabama and the director of scholastic media, envies the European model of journalism surrounding major news events.
“They have a 24-hour hands-off rule,” Cumming’s said. “It would never work in the U.S., but for them, it stops so many of the issues surrounding getting information from social media because it gives the reporters time to do their research and check their facts.”
Many errors made in journalism are basic human error. Journalist do not intentionally set out to be malicious. However, social media has increased the need to be the first to deliver the news. As a result, some journalist have become willing to bend their own codes of ethics in order to produce their story.
“It’s important to remember that journalism is not presenting information,” Cumming’s said. “It’s presenting information in context.”