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Please DONT Retweet! A Tale of Learning by Failure

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Early last week, Stanford’s graduate journalism Students used phones, email, text messages and twitter to reenact the earliest moments of reporting after the recent catastrophic earthquake in Chile. Did they do irreparable harm to the information landscape? To those who lost loved ones in the actual quake? To the reputations of their own brands?

As part of an exercise meant to illustrate journalists’ role in disasters as often the first people to reconnect severed lines of information, two of my classmates (the co-teaching team)and I designed a game. Think of it as a “murder mystery party” wherein every player has a role, with certain restrictions and actions to take as part of the overall plot.

My co-teachers and I spent hours refining our scenario. We sought to bring immediacy and reality, so we chose a real disaster with a relevant time frame.

I spent several months living in Chile in 2004, and then again for a short time in 2008, and was more than happy to lend my knowledge of the geography and infrastructure there to make our game as accurate a model of reality as we could create.

The Disaster

Santiago wasn’t as hard hit as Concepcion, for instance. Lota, a small town on a hill near the epicenter, was nearly obliterated, but was, in our game, nearly impossible to contact. Damage to the coastal city of Valparaiso was severe, but as the Chilean Navy is based there, we concluded that it would be realistic that their infrastructure was in use to quickly respond to the crisis.

The Players

The co-teachers and I split up the class of 16 or so into four distinct groups. there were four journalists who were based in New York who had each been assigned to cover a particular city and it’s state of damage after the quake.

Another four class members were assigned to each play a victim on the quake, each living in one of the locales. There were aid workers, an aid worker dispatcher, and three government information officers.

The Restrictions

Journalists were each given the contact of the aid worker dispatcher, who in turn had contact info for the individual aid workers. Aid workers each had the contact info of a single victim, who was the source of the direct quote the journalists were seeking. The trick was that based on where the aid workers were stationed, and where the victims had lived, the means of communication were limited. Some could be reached by any means possible save face-to-face contact (we put aid workers and victims in a physically separate location from the journalists to simulate them being in different countries). Some victims could only be reached by phone, some only by email, and then only once or twice. In the hardest hit areas, we forced the victims to only speak with their journalists via the phone, and then once the call had ended, we informed the journalist that because of communication difficulties (that we couldn’t simulate in real time)  she had to drop out half of her questions and answers because of the poor quality of the phone connection she had just “experienced”.

Some victims could only be contacted of via Twitter.

In Real Time- a live streamed video of what ensued

The Aftermath

The lesson was a success, mostly. the journalist players spontaneously formed a press pool of sorts because they were running into great sources from other areas before they found theirs (as the teaching team had designed).  We had stories that included the correct details in some cases, and omissions in others. In one particularly telling example, a very complete story was written that quoted a victim from a hard hit area and incorrectly placed them in a less-affected city, causing a predictable distortion in the news presented. The facts were right, bu the information networks we generally rely on to verify sources’ stories were not there.

There was one snafu, however, and it is the reason for this post.

The Moral Dillemma

One particularly thoughtful participant in our game, who was playing the part of the aid worker dispatcher, was asked to use a specific twitter hashtag to update the journalists with fake casualty reports that were streaming in from out fake aid workers. She realized immediately, that out perfect little laboratory experiment had a serious flaw. We were asking people to tweet about our simulation, which bore the names of places in a currently emerging disaster zone. We were tweeting out casualty reports, reporter’s questions, victims statuses and all manner of info generated by a group of twenty-somethings secure int he ivory tower.

The objections fell into two categories. First, was that our game was callus, and would appear vile and insensitive to those who were actively dealing with life and death in the quake zone.

The second objection, and the one that rang with more immidiacy to me was that we were polluting the stream of REAL tweets coming out of Chile’s disaster zones with our false information. Worse, we hadn’t even considered that.

I take responsibility for the oversight. Most of the issues here could have been resolved by simply changing the name and locale of the disaster. We got very lucky in that most of our tweeters got all their hashtags right and also misspelled the names of the places they were supposed to be tweeting from. Damadge was minimal.

That’s not the point though. What is more interesting is that we, tech-savvy aspiring journalists, didn’t see the gaping hole in our closed system. We saw twitter as a flexible tool to be used for education, in this instance, and assumed that because it was flexible and we gave it context, that was all that mattered. What we forgot was that no one outside our carefully constructed bubble had that context and would interpret what we tweeted in the way that made most sense to them.

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