Imagine, you are a firefighter/EMT arriving at the scene of a serious car crash. You begin your sizeup, and approach the vehicle smooshed up against a tree. Radiator fluid and steam are boiling out from the destroyed front end. You lean in through the open drivers side window, make contact with the patient and perform a rapid assessment of his status, indicating what is likely non-life threatening trauma. You try to open the door to no avail. As you stand and turn back towards arriving units and resources, a citizen snaps a picture of the scene and posts it on Twitter, with a caption about the wreck’s severity. 12 hours later, you are called into the chief’s office to explain your actions at the scene. He had just received a phone call from a local TV reporter wanting to know why you were posing and smiling at the camera. “I don’t have a clue what you are talking about chief. What picture?” He pulls up the picture which is plastered all over the internet. “What the hell?” you say to yourself. “Chief, I’m certainly not smiling there. All I remember is banging my knee on the door and grimacing as I turned to yell for the incoming engine crew to bring their extrication tools. This is bullcrap!” The chief agrees, and says not to worry. He has your back. You leave his office mad, confused and concerned about your reputation.
The scenario above is not entirely fiction. Fox 2 News in Detroit ran with a story late last week that accused a Wayne-Westland Fire Authority EMT of posing and smiling at the scene of a truck vs. tree MVA. A looky-loo took this picture and posted it on her Twitter feed along with a caption simply noting the severity of the wreck.
However, later the patient, who received relatively minor injuries (given the mechanism of injury) saw the picture and thought the EMT was smiling. The story made its way to the Fox 2 news team, and the accusation made it to the evening news. There is only one problem, no one spoke to the person who took and posted the picture. My friend Dave Statter of Statter911.com, found the story and immediately posted it on his website. Dave, a former first responder and well respected retired TV news reporter for a large east coast market, rightfully went after the station and reporter, scolding them on their lack of journalistic integrity and sensationalism. Right on Dave! Within a short period of time, the story’s comments section was filled with negative comments from first responders and citizens who clearly saw through the thin veil of truth. Oh yeah, the person who took the photo tweeted that the crews acted very professionally and the EMT was not smiling in the photo she posted.
Within a day the story was removed from their website. Victory? Nope, not even close.
Rather than apologize, Fox 2 ran a follow up story, again highlighting what I consider slanderous allegations, yet with the additional information from the photographer. The reporter mentions her respect for first responders and, sniff sniff, the numerous “very cruel and hurtful” comments posted with the original story on social media. No apology, no retraction… REALLY? I’m sure Dave will continue to turn up the heat on the station. On the other hand, I want to know where the fire department stands on this issue. Who is telling their side of the story and sticking up for the EMT? Yes, a deputy chief issued a statement supporting the EMT and the crews. But, in today’s news environment, is this enough? I think not.
I Googled the department, which serves a suburban area of Detroit, and found the city’s official Twitter feed (270 followers), the department’s web page and Facebook page (with 470 likes). There is no mention of the false story or department’s position on any of the sites. The department’s web site and Facebook pages don’t appear to have been kept up to date for some time, which explains the lack of followers. The city’s Twitter feed is current, filled with news announcements and activity lists (good!). But, with only 270 followers their reach is limited.
This story serves as yet another reminder to public agencies of the need to be very aggressive in telling their story, and do so in an engaging way. Having a “savings account” of interested citizens listening to your agency can pay big dividends when a rouge reporter is unleashed. Telling your side of the story on social media is the most effective way to combat misinformation and sensationalism, because Dave Statter won’t always be around to bail you out.