Information, in many ways, can be either constructive or hazardous, as demonstrated by Wednesday night’s online reaction to news of the shooting at the heart of USC’s University Park Campus.
What transpired is now clear: A gunman wounded four non-USC students, one critically, while waiting in line for a Halloween party held in the ballroom of the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. Approximately two hours later, the Dept. of Public Safety announced that the suspect had been taken into custody by the Los Angeles Police Department.
The online response to the incident demonstrated how social media websites, such as Twitter, Facebook and others, allow people to share news as fast as possible, especially in cases of crime. No other platforms stand capable of providing information mere seconds after news breaks. So social media undoubtedly played an important role Wednesday night by informing students, parents and others affiliated with the university that a shooting had taken place on campus.
This publication sought to do the same. Within 10 minutes of hearing gunshots on Trousdale Parkway, we confirmed with DPS officials on the scene that gunshots had in fact been fired. And for the remainder of the evening, the Daily Trojan’s reporters made efforts to share, largely via social media, whatever updates officials and sources could confirm. Other student media outlets, in addition to the Los Angeles Times, were on hand to do the same.
But as beneficial as websites like Twitter can prove to be, the perils of social media and rushed reporting also reared their ugly heads on Wednesday night.
The online conversation in the immediate aftermath of the shooting proved to be flooded with inaccuracies as a result of haste and a seemingly never-ending desire to break news first without necessarily being accurate.
Before law enforcement confirmed two suspects had been apprehended, several students tweeted about the suspects’ whereabouts. Some suggested a gunman had been arrested or was still at large at varying locations. One journalism student from Annenberg, meanwhile, claimed the gunman was located on the third floor of the campus center. This eventually evolved into a rumor that the shooter was on the third floor of the Student Union building, just below the Daily Trojan’s offices. As you might gather, this became slightly unnerving for several DT editors, myself included, and staff members who stayed in the Student Union as part of an effort to finish production for this newspaper’s Thursday print edition, as well as provide updates regarding the shooting.
The reporter’s tweet was later deleted after they apologized, admitting it was “inaccurate.”
Though the spread of misinformation appears largely harmless in this instance, it still has the power to risk the safety of students. What would have happened, for instance, if publications had reported that the gunman was taken into custody when he or she instead was at large, roaming the campus? Would students have viewed that as indication that the scene was clear or safe, when the contrary would have been true?
To USC’s own credit, the university was particularly responsive in the wake of the shooting, providing consistent, accurate and up-to-date information. Just 15 minutes after gunshots were heard, DPS issued a Trojan Alert reporting the latest development. And it later issued four subsequent alerts over the next four hours before reopening campus early Thursday morning.
In today’s Internet-driven environment, it’s essential for reporters and citizen journalists to strike the proper balance between speed and accuracy, especially in situations as grave as what happened on campus this Halloween.
Finding this balance is not always easy. But regardless, we must continue to be increasingly aware of the implications of our decisions, especially as technology enables us to disseminate information more and more quickly.
Joey Kaufman is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism and religion, and is the Daily Trojan’s managing editor.