When cops and Twitter tell different stories

Cops say there were no gun shots during Philadelphia's July 4 celebration. Hundreds of people on Twitter say otherwise. So what's a reporter to do?

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  1. If you love understatement, you might say there are a few problems with violence in this lovely, patriotic city of Philadelphia. As in any city that likes to think it has clear boundaries between "safe areas" and "unsafe areas," a shooting at the massive July 4 celebration in one of those "safe areas" would be a very distressing story. 


    Around 10:50 p.m. on July 4, 10 minutes after fireworks started to shoot over the Art Museum, Twitter freaked out. 

  2. And so on and so on. There were hundreds of tweets mentioning the shooting, and witnesses described running crowds.


    Yet there was legitimate reason for skepticism as to whether there was actually a gun shot. This was a fireworks show; could it have just been a nearby firecracker that alarmed the crowd? If the shooting happened in the middle of a massive crowd, why had no camera phone pictures of medics surrounding a victim emerged? Most of the tweets appeared to be repeating the same information; could it have started with a small amount of confused people and spread from there?

    At least two reporters, Jason Nark and Noah Cohen, looked for actual confirmation of shots being fired.

  3. These reporters did exactly what they should have: They did not take Twitter reports for absolute truth, just as you wouldn't take a phone call from a stranger as absolute truth. As my former colleague Mandy Jenkins likes to say, Twitter is a tip line, not a reporter. The reporters did their best to confirm those reports of gun shots, one on the scene and one working the scanner and phones.


    But without official confirmation, it raised a difficult question totally new to the Twitter era: What do you do when the official account of an event is at odds with dozens, or even hundreds, of people reporting the opposite? 

    It would be one thing if any of the Twitter users were offering solid proof, but they weren't. There were no pictures of a bloody victim, no one claiming to know the victim, no one saying they had personally witnessed someone pull a gun out. If someone offered that kind of proof, the reporters could take it to the police and either demand answers or call them out for their blatant lies. 

    In the absence of such proof, reporters cannot mistake quantity for reliability. At such a statemate, reporters are best off telling readers exactly what they know and exactly what they don't know. 

    When the Philadelphia Daily News posted a "here's what we know" update at 12:46 a.m., they heard from many more readers who were there.

    My little brother and I were at Logan Square watching the fireworks and about halfway through the fireworks a whole lot of people just started sprinting east down the parkway. Everyone looked extremely scared. We took a right at the four seasons hotel. I'd say it was a stampede because everyone took off at the exact same time and ran in the same direction. I had no idea what was going on but we followed the crowd. I'd like to know what happened.
    -- pat2452

    There was gunshots and screaming, I grabbed my son with others and ran up the block, very chaotic , definately felt unsafe.
    -- jacljane

    (...)And I know the difference between a gun shot and a firecracker. Gun shots happen in philly every day. Firecrackers, a couple times a year. There were gunshots at a couple different locations.
    -- CCphotog

    I was there last night with a friend from out of town. About halfway through the fireworks we heard a couple loud pops that were louder than any of the fireworks and I was about to say, "Wow, that one was loud," when we both saw people running at us saying things like, "They're shooting," and, "Someone has a gun." We didn't stick around to see anything else we grabbed each other and ran.
    -- philly337

    And then there's this video, which will let you hear the loud pops but still doesn't offer any true proof (the loud pops come about seven seconds into the video).

  4. Philadelphia 4th July shots - now you can believe !
  5. Daily News reporters continued to try to track down firm evidence of a gun shot Tuesday. The important thing here is they make themselves available for first-hand accounts if there are any. They appended a line onto the original article: "UPDATE: We've been trying to verify persistent rumors all day and still haven't confirmed any violence. If you were on the parkway last night and saw something, email stumma@phillynews.com." 


    Meanwhile, the first evidence that there might be a victim surfaced on Twitter:

  6. The Daily News tried to contact her, but so far she hasn't gotten back to them. So we're right where we started: The official account and the hundreds of Twitter users both smell of rat. 


    My verdict: Readers have offered enough evidence to report that there was a chaotic scene, but the news org was right to hold off on reporting the gun shots. There is a story here, but it would be irresponsible to report that there were shots fired.


    In its follow-ups, the Daily News reported on the stampede after the loud bangs, and the documented crimes it was able to find

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