This is an attempt at deciphering the happenings of the past week in Boston and the way we follow news today. What are some of the learnings from the past days and what must we avoid. And most importantly, how has social media, Twitter in particular, forever changed the way we consume real-time news.
This was our generation’s OJ Simpson – Broncos chase. This time, instead of 21 helicopters hovering over the infamous slow-speed chase, we had hundreds of thousands of us refreshing our Twitter feed in real-time as the Chechen brothers evaded, assassinated, and ran over their way into infamy. This time, we contributed and participated our way into the history of media.
Journalism isn’t dead. We’re just reinventing it.
Let’s refresh our memory on a few of the biggest on-air and online human errors the media bungled:
1. CNN who rushed to call that an arrest had been made when none had and other too eager networks like Fox who repeated the nonsense.
Well no one pokes fun at CNN better than Jon Stewart, so here goes. This should give you a sense for the continued hits that CNN has been taking as a sub-standard bearer of mediocre news these days.
2. NY Post: No one expects much from this tabloid, the second Murdoch outlet that screwed up the Boston coverage by pointing fingers at bag men who weren’t Suspect 1 nor Suspect 2.
3. Reddit: Aah… where would we be if social media weren’t a part of these screw-ups.
Yes, there may have been some smugness from social media folks when they thought some of the internet sleuthing pin-pointed the suspects but as was the case, they were way off-base and have apologized profusely since. And I regret being a part of the RT mafia that was a lil too eager to beat our chests a lil too early; a culpability we now share with mainstream media. But for every Reddit fiasco, there’s a LetsRun success and that’s why the “wisdom of crowds” works and is here to stay:
In places where reporters could not tread because of police restrictions, local residents filled in some of the audio and video gaps. From their front stoops and through their windows, they posted videos of an early-morning shootout and photographs of a vehicle said to be involved in a police chase. The material was quickly scooped up by local television stations and Twitter users. On NBC’s “Today” show, Savannah Guthrie was able to interview two Watertown residents sheltering at home, thanks to a Skype video connection. The residents showed images of bullet holes in their walls, presumably from the shootout.
Farhad Manjoo of Slate Magazine goes as far as hyperventilating:
Next, pull out your phone, delete your Twitter app, shut off your email, and perhaps cancel your service plan. Unplug your PC.
Finally, load up your favorite newspaper’s home page. Spend about 10 minutes reading a couple of in-depth news stories about the events of the day. And that’s it: You’ve now caught up with all your friends who spent the past day and a half going out of their minds following cable and Twitter. In fact, you’re now better informed than they are, because during your self-imposed exile from the news, you didn’t stumble into the many cul-de-sacs and dark alleys of misinformation that consumed their lives. You’re less frazzled, better rested, and your rain gutters are clear.
Breaking news is broken.
Molly Wood of CBS suggests:
It’s not. We have more information, but it’s a morass of truths, half-truths, and what we used to call libel. It’s fast, but it’s bad. And bad information is a cancer that just keeps growing. I’d argue the opposite of Ingram: that the hyper-intense pressure of real-time reporting from Twitter, crowdsourcing from Reddit, and constant mockery from an online community that is empirically skewed toward negativity and criticism is actually hurting journalism. It’s making all the news worse.
I beg to differ. Bad journalists make specious judgments with or without social media.
- Social media had nothing to do with John King’s judgment to call that an arrest had been made.
- Social media had nothing to do with the New York Post broadcasting two innocent young men’s photographs from the rooftops.
- Yes, Redditors, did get their facts wrong, messed up, fessed up and now have offered to help find the poor young man who’s been missing and was falsely accused by them as a potential suspect but it’s the last in a string of bad judgments made this past week.
It’s easy to blame social media for all the ills ailing journalism, but fact remains good journalism will always be about an objective interpretation of verifiable facts. And it’s the responsibility of the world’s largest media institutions to uphold these standards. Not CNN their way into infamy.
None could have said it better than Alan Gregg, former director of Medical Sciences for the Rockefeller Foundation in this excellent post on the Art of Observation:
“Most of the knowledge and much of the genius of the research worker lie behind his selection of what is worth observing. It is a crucial choice, often determining the success or failure of months of work, often differentiating the brilliant discoverer from the … plodder.”
The Boston incident is not an isolated incident. Increasingly we find news outlets choosing to be held captive to the ever quickening news cycle. It was true during the Kennedy assassination, it worsened during the OJ trial, and it’s running a mile a second in today’s social media world.
- It is the journalist’s job to be the discoverer, not the plodder.
- It is the journalist’s job to urge caution and call out the plodder.
- It is not the journalist’s job to be the plodder.
Thoughts echoed by one of the few journalists who proved his value in this melee of real-time nonsense:
But I’d like to go one step further and point out that social media can be a huge asset to journalists in doing their job better. And that job is keeping the rest of the country (that’s on edge) posted on the latest in an unnerving string of attacks. And, if Twitter is the best medium to get that information out, then journalists have to figure out the best way to use it. And some did.
“Nothing has really changed,” Bar-Tur, a social media and law-enforcement consultant says, “just the medium has changed.” That might be enough for a new model manhunt to emerge.
And, that exactly should be the takeaway for journalists today.
The medium has changed. Journalism will evolve with social media.
(To be continued…)