Sunday, April 21, 2013

Evaluating Traditional and Social Media in Boston Bombing Reporting

I was interviewed this morning on KNX1070 Radio and earlier in the week by AP and USA Today and college radio stations about the media coverage - including errors - of the Boston bombings and the hunt for suspects, and thought I'd share what I said in the interviews here.

First, we need to distinguish between traditional mass media and social media (or what I call new new media) and the intersecting ways in which they covered the story.

The big flub in traditional media was the reporting on Wednesday by CNN and other outlets that the two suspects had been arrested.  This turned out to be false.  And since some news operations - such as MSNBC - refrained from reporting this, CNN and the others came in for much criticism.

At least three points, however, need to be kept in mind regarding what happened with the traditional media.

One, the media are always caught between the conflicting goals of getting the news out as quickly as possible and making sure the news reported is accurate.  The public wants both, and is entitled to both.  Further, people in times of crisis do better with more information - being kept in the dark, or feeling you don't know what's going on in life-and-death situations, is a prescription for high anxiety and jumping to all kinds of wrong conclusions.

The second is that John King on CNN who first went public with the wrong information that arrests were made obviously didn't just make this up.  He reported what he had been told by law enforcement.  So, the blame for this incorrect reporting resides at least as much as with law enforcement, which gave King the erroneous information.

And third, and most important, the incorrect reporting in no way impeded the bringing of the two brothers to justice.  

How did social media do in the past week?

The big error occurred on Reddit, and its crowd-sourced identification, based on the photos of the suspects, of two people as the bombers who in fact had nothing to do with the bombing.  This error was compounded by the unfortunate fact that one of the two people wrongly identified was a student missing from Brown University, whose family was already worried about him.   And the error was technologically compounded by its dissemination on Twitter.

On the other hand, crowd-sourcing was crucial in bringing the real bombers to justice, as the public responded with their own photos after the FBI's somewhat blurry photos released on Thursday.   The ubiquity of cameras in phones is making it increasingly impossible for criminals who strike in public to remain anonymous.

So social media, like traditional media, get less than perfect grades for their performance in the past week.  But, on the whole, both helped far more than they hurt.  Traditional media did for the most part keep the public accurately informed during this crucial time, and social media crowd-sourcing played a crucial role in apprehending the suspects.

And regarding the wrong information, we were made aware once again of a truth about all reporting, traditional as well as social media, that we should always keep in mind:  don't believe everything you see and hear from any journalist, whether professional or citizen, whether on CNN or MSNBC or Reddit or Wikipedia.   Take everything with a grain of salt.   Don't accept it as truth unless and until it is confirmed by all sources.   In that way, a wrong report's damage can be limited, and we can reap the benefits of being the best informed people in history, as did this past week with the reporting from Boston.



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