Breaking news and the Toronto van attack

In breaking news situations, misinformation can often spread quickly online.

In breaking news situations, misinformation can often spread quickly online, before the facts can be confirmed.

An event has just occurred, and people are talking about it, but not much is known. There are rumours and speculation — some people will interpret the event through their biases before facts are known, others will try to shift the narrative to advance a particular political agenda.

This was the case in the van attack in Toronto in April, 2018, in which 10 people were killed and 14 injured. For hours after the first reports came out, not much was known about the attacker, or his motives. As people tried to make sense of the tragedy, voices with interpretations that turned out to be wrong were amplified on social media.

In the aftermath of the attack, a reporter tweeted eye-witness accounts, one of which was used by some to promote a narrative of Islamic terrorism.

Review the social media posts collected in this article

Look at this contrasting example from the Toronto Star, a combination of fact-finding and verification by 21 reporters.

Guiding Questions

• What are some of the risks of sharing information or speculating when no one really knows what’s going on?
• How might people’s prejudices affect their understanding of breaking news events? What might be the consequences of this?
• What are some ways we can try to make sure we don’t believe wrong information when there is breaking news?
• Why is a journalistic obligation to the truth so important?
• What would happen if we didn’t have professional reporters to provide verified account of events? 

Activity Suggestion: Test your implicit bias

Project Implicit is a non-profit group of researchers that study the thoughts and feelings people have that we may not be aware of, and don’t have control over. Their goal it to make the public aware of their own hidden biases. This is done with a series of online tests that measure bias related to issues such as gender, weight, age, ethnicity.

You can take the tests here: and reflect on the results: were you surprised by your result? What did you learn? Is it helpful to think about how our minds work in ways we’re not necessarily aware of?