Media organisations and journalists are using Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to disseminate news and gain new audience like never before. Indeed “shares” and “likes” have become important parameters with which we judge the reach (and success) of a story today. The Times Group has, in fact, linked journalists’ salaries to their Twitter and WhatsApp activity.

But these social networks are also emerging as powerful newsgathering tools for journalists across print, TV and new media. While this enables journalists to act fast and churn out news at lightning speed, it can backfire in the absence of due diligence and multiple layers of fact-checking.

Two recent incidents show how placing too much reliance on social media apps and networks can do more harm than good to journalistic credibility and reputation.

Syria in Pathankot

An image from war-torn Syria found its way to India Today.

The channel used the image, claiming these were the terrorists shot dead in the Pathankot operation. India Today along with CNN-IBN also tweeted out this image reiterating that these were the men behind the Pathankot attack.

Media' terror coverage syria photos used to show pathankot attack

Within hours, both the channels deleted the picture without tendering an apology or a clarification. CNN IBN had attributed the image to Ashok Bagariya, legal editor at the channel. Since both the channels used the same image as “exclusive” and “breaking news”, it is likely that they got the image from the same source.

We tried to find out where the two channels got the image from. Bagariya refused to comment and did not respond to our multiple tweets, emails, calls and text messages. Sources in the editorial department at CNN-IBN admitted to the “goof-up”, but refused to comment on where the channel had sourced the image from.

Newslaundry also contacted India Today and was informed by one of its senior editors that the source of the image was, in fact, a senior official in Indian Army. The editor told us that they got the image from an official WhatsApp group of defence journalists and senior Army officials.

The source told us that a senior Army officer, who also handles press liaisons, had forwarded the image to the group where it was first cited as an image from Pathankot. Journalists, in turn, eager to break the story first, rushed to use the image. The Army officer in question got back to them a few hours later asking them to take it down since he had accidently sent the wrong image.

WhatsApp groups are used by many journalists to get quick alerts from various sources, but should journalists act on the alert without spending precious time cross-checking, especially when it is something as sensitive as a terror operation? It is important to note that Tweeples were quick to spot the error that escaped the trained eyes of reporters and editors in two sizeable newsrooms.

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