We live in an era where a tweet from Hawaii’s senior senator in Congress could preempt any “official” announcement.

I’m talking about the sudden, tragic death of Loretta Fuddy, director of the state Department of Health, killed in a flight returning from Molokai.

Throughout Wednesday night, there was no official word of her death. Yet various news outlets had confirmed it through sources, and tweeted it out.

That prompted U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz to issue a statement: “Loretta Fuddy was one of the finest, most capable, and caring public servants I have ever known. This is a sad day for Hawaii.”

The quote was basically taken as an official announcement from the social media savvy senator, and made the rounds of news outlets. Since then, it’s been quoted several times in local media, including Civil Beat.

We operate in an era where Gov. Neil Abercrombie can announce his ultimately successful campaign for governor on Twitter, and where his former lieutenant governor can openly mourn the loss of a longtime, beloved public servant in the same 140-character medium.

It’s also an age where social media presents great opportunities — and great risks — for the spread of information.

I first heard of Loretta Fuddy’s death through KITV’s social media posts, notably one of their veteran reporters, Andrew Pereira, and this tweet, posted at 7:37 p.m.:

This came as a surprise to many people, particularly since very early reports said that all nine aboard the Makani Kai Air flight were alive. Within the hour, KITV was reporting that one person had died.

Although the news spread through social media, KITV had confirmed the news through traditional, hard-nosed journalism. KITV News Director Chuck Parker recounts that his news team confirmed Fuddy’s death through five separate sources.

“That was multiple reporters and other staff members working sources through the night,” Parker said. “We weren’t going to go with just one, there was no way that was going to happen. But we were very comfortable, with our information, and we were correct.”

I covered many deaths as a reporter for the former Honolulu Star-Bulletin, where Parker was my editor for more than four years. It’s a discussion we’ve had the misfortune of having dozens of times. There’s been a few times where the next of kin learned of their loved one’s death through the media.

“Information can travel so fast right now,” Parker said. “It’s an interesting situation. We talked about that. Does her family know? Are they going to learn it from us? That’s never something you want to do. But at the same time, she’s a cabinet member in state government. There’s a compelling interest to know and right to know.”

Parker said reporters should consider impact on family, particularly if the death didn’t involve someone as high profile as a state official, and that reporting that someone has died in a story like this should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Government officials, including police and medical staffs, frequently cite the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, when it comes to releasing the name of someone who has died. It is largely the reason medical and emergency response officials delay releasing the names.

Several of Fuddy’s family members were notified quickly after the crash. But a few relatives on the mainland couldn’t be reached Wednesday night. Her boss, Abercrombie, was notified shortly after he returned to Hawaii around 4 p.m. from Washington, D.C.

But are HIPAA rules still valid in a time when information shoots around the Internet — and on cell phones — in the few seconds it takes to type a few keystrokes? The issue has prompted presentations like this one made to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. Like many industries upended in the Information Age, health professionals are brainstorming ways to leverage and understand new technology while protecting patient information.

But I can’t argue with Parker and his team’s tried-and-true method of gathering information about Wednesday’s crash. We live an era where Twitter users can drum up fake Thanksgiving feuds on airlines that hit national headlines, and the venerable CBS “60 Minutes” can rely too much on false stories about the Benghazi incident.

Consider this New York Times piece where the headline says it all: “If a Story is Viral, Truth May Take a Beating.”

It may be time for officials — like journalists — to recognize there’s a compelling interest for the public to be told all the facts, including the identities of people who have died, before they sail through cyberspace on their own.

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