WKU’s “altercation” illustrates danger of crowdsourcing

Journalism is an industry that doesn’t just strive for perfection, it insists upon it.  Sources are always verified, facts are double checked, and punctuation is perfect.  To me, the inclusion of crowdsourcing will make it harder for journalists to maintain this level of perfection.

What better example of crowdsourcing gone wrong than the infamous “altercation” that occurred on the campus of Western Kentucky University in the fall of 2008?

Herald photo (Brian Anslem): Officer subdues a female student who refuses to cooperate.

Herald photo (Brian Anslem): Officer subdues a female WKU student who refused to cooperate with emergency procedures.

On October 22, 2008 at 12:47 a.m. , WKU sent text messages to students, via the university’s emergency notification system, that read: “There is a situation on the south campus involving guns. Police are on the scene. Everyone should stay clear of the area until further notice.” 

By 12:52 a.m., students began receiving a follow up message: “There is a report that shots have been fired at or around PFT. Please stay away, and stay indoors until further notice.” 

Within minutes, emergency sirens were ringing across campus and faculty members began moving students into lock down.

When the sirens began sounding, my friends and I happened to be near our vehicles so instead of locking down, we left campus.  This decision would make my outlook on the entire day’s events very different from that of the students still on campus.

While driving we turned on local radio coverage of the situation.  Calls were coming in from students, faculty, and bystanders.  Everyone thought that they alone knew what was going on and wanted their story to be on the air.  The only problem was that no one knew what was really happening on campus. 

Since the WKU administration was not releasing any information, the local radio and television stations began running these unconfirmed stories as fact. 

By the time I reached a television these rumors had hit national news.  CNN and FOX News were covering the story as it unfolded, although neither had been given anymore information from WKU administration than the students had. 

I watched in horror,  thinking that my campus had been the site of a well planned attack by armed gunmen. 

At 3:07 p.m., lock down was lifted and WKU held a press conference to explain what really happened.  In all actuality, no shots had ever been fired.  The university had attempted to contain the reports of “an individual with a weapon” at south campus by notifying students to stay away, but were confused by the media coverage into thinking that there was a threat at main campus as well. 

The incident that had incited fear in the WKU student body, Bowling Green community, and viewers of various news media across the country was nothing more than an “altercation“. 

The entire nation was told a story of complete falsities and confusion, all because the media didn’t stop to confirm reports.

What happened at Western should serve as a warning to all media outlets that use crowdsourcing to build stories as they happen.  WKU was lucky, there wasn’t a shooting, no one was hurt.  Will we be that lucky the next time?

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