Social media a digital version of ‘telephone’ | In Our Opinion

For good or bad, social media has taken center stage in nearly every major news story.

For good or bad, social media has taken center stage in nearly every major news story.

From the presidential election with its bizarre battle of the Tweets to last Friday’s tragic Cascade Mall shooting and subsequent arrest of Oak Harbor resident Arcan Cetin, information, true and otherwise, spreads faster on Facebook than a virus.

After word of the shooting hit Facebook, people quickly turned to online police scanners and reported moment-to-moment developments following the shooting of five people inside the mall’s Macy’s department store.

Surviellance images were released to the media and soon posted on the Whidbey News-Times Facebook page, among many others. A manhunt was launched for a man who, because of his complexion, appeared to be “Hispanic” and in his 20s or 30s.

It was the release of these photos that led to tips that, in turn, led to Cetin’s arrest, recorded on video by onlookers. Two such videos were shared by their owners on the News-Times’ Facebook page.

Social media users readily offered theories about the shooter, some even publicly posting names and photos of people they thought might be the shooter.

On Saturday, 20-year-old Cetin was arrested.

Of Turkish descent, there was immediately speculation that Cetin was Muslim and the shootings were an act of terrorism. Some said they believed the shooting was over a broken romance. There were posts suggesting Cetin wasn’t acting alone, that a “blond” or “balding” man was an accomplice.

And then some of that speculation began to pop up in real-time TV news coverage.

Before law enforcement could officially release the identity of the suspected shooter, it was appearing on Facebook pages, along with still shots of Cetin’s personal Facebook photos.

While social media undoubtedly played a role in Cetin’s arrest, it also revealed a public thirst to be a part of the story. Inaccurate or misleading information is still rampant in the community. Misinformation morphs until the original information becomes unrecognizable.

We’ve seen baseless and false rumors shared on Facebook as “fact” and the News-Times ripped for not having the “news” right away.

The News-Times — along with the Seattle Times and The Herald in Everett — did not report Cetin’s name until it was confirmed by police. We felt it was irresponsible.

A journalist’s responsibility is to report facts, not rumors, not hearsay. We rely on official sources and verify information before it’s printed.

As society moves into a more digital-demanding consumer, newspapers find themselves in the predicament of getting the news out more quickly while maintaining journalistic integrity and ethics.

When there is an escalated news situation such as this weekend, readers must ask themselves, do they want minute-by-minute updates, likely rife with misinformation and unverified facts, or do they want clear, concise and accurate information? We hope it’s still the latter.