Social media clutter in Boston shows how bad unregulated platforms can be

Apr 22, 2013
Social media chaos in Boston highlights dangers of unregulated platforms
For any enthusiast of social media and its use in journalism, last week was a tragedy. Or rather, a double tragedy. The tragedy itself was the senseless attack (leading to the discussion about whether any attack makes sense) at the Boston Marathon. Journalistically, the devastation came in the coverage of the hunt for the perpetrators, where well-intentioned incompetents and unscrupulous opportunists turned into a Brancaleone army and where traditional media did not know whether to chase the digital whirlwind or lose audience to properly inform. The episode made it clear that there is no "citizen journalism" and that, although indispensable for information gathering, social media is not enough to replace journalism. Society needs journalists and companies suitable for the new reality. Without them, there will be a price to pay.
Journalist Andy Carvin gave a speech at the International Symposium of Online Journalists (ISOJ) as the bungled coverage unfolded. Carvin, an advocate for the use of social media in journalism and a leading digital journalist in the United States, apologized for the inappropriate way social media played a role in the coverage. Carvin himself was the protagonist of a “blunder” when he tweeted that Senator Giffords had died after an attack in Texas.
It is not possible to list all the mistakes and nonsense made in the Boston hunt. Disconnected information emerged on Twitter and was passed on by the media; traditional media journalists confirmed conflicting information that later turned out to be false; the Boston Police Department tried to remain as “the source” of information, but ended up adopting a sensational tone on its Twitter account, while its own private radio communication was made public by the whistleblower Anonymous. Authorities, traditional media, journalists very active in their social media accounts and the public ran frantically in all directions from Thursday afternoon to Friday late morning. If you read the websites of two reputable media outlets in the early hours of Thursday, you would probably see different information. What Bloomberg called a “surreal crowdsourced hunt” was actually the first absolute digital journalistic shipwreck in 2013, with the right to risky mistakes, such as pointing out innocents as guilty.
I sincerely believe in the intention of the excellent Carvin, but I don't believe that he will change his style after the Boston fiasco. The race for the scoop has always been a characteristic of journalism. Newspapers and broadcasters have always stepped up to see who gave the last relevant information first. The problem is that the deadlines are no longer tight – there are no more deadlines. “Now” has become the ultimate deadline. Harried by social media, the media decided to try to keep pace and spectacularly scraped themselves, with very rare exceptions. This desperation to run against Deadline Zero did not end last week. Carvin, other excellent journalists, and thousands of others not so good will still take time to learn not to chase their own tail.
The disservice done to journalism goes beyond poorly done coverage. It is very possible that the Boston bombs will be interpreted as “the failure of social media”, with technology skeptics and more conservative journalists pointing the finger and saying “I didn't tell you?”.
The issue lies far from this. Shortly after the attack, a sensible post by Jennifer Vanasco in the Columbia Journalism Review warned of the possibility of thunder and storm in the coverage of the search for the idiots who exploded the bombs in Boston. Jason Abruzzese, from the Financial Times, made a similar alert, still on the 18th. The risk of hasty conclusions was easy to see because it is always great when the facts are still happening (El Pais knows it), especially from anyone registered on Twitter visualizing themselves as a potential Bob Woodward.
The aftermath of the failure to inform (whose step-by-step, you see in full in this other post by Abruzzese for the FT) brings up three observations. First, that journalism can even be done by citizens, but there is no citizen journalism. The practice of journalism requires a series of practices, disciplines, precautions, and initiative that only some people have. In this group, those well trained by journalism colleges have the advantage of having learned or polished these skills. This leads to the obvious implication that information gathered on social networks can be great clues as to where to start investigating, but they are only confirmed when they are confirmed by you or by some media outlet or journalist you trust (and the risk of endorsing the information becomes equally divided between you and him).
Second observation: journalists need to learn to deal with social media and the Deadline Zero. It doesn't matter if you are the editor-in-chief of the Financial Times or if you only have an activity on social networks engaging in searching for facts necessary to clarify an event or unfolding. Any unprepared activity that is dressed up as journalism at a time like the Boston Hunt is a disservice and irresponsible. “Opinion is free, but facts are sacred”, as observed by C.P. Scott, longtime editor of The Guardian in the last century.
Three: the challenge of technology for journalism now is to create validation mechanisms for the immense amounts of information created by crowdsourcing on social networks or not. The tsunami of information will not stop and this is not necessarily bad. Large amounts of data make it possible to glimpse aspects that would never come to light in the discussion. However, they can indeed, as happened in Boston, “succumb to their own weight” (to use an expression by Jason Abruzzese).
The big news companies still hold the ball, but they need a quick and accurate counterattack - which, mind you, is almost impossible to achieve in a large corporation, as I have discussed several times on this blog. They still have the necessary influence to be able to propose a new moment of journalism that will be different in all aspects - business, process, audience, relationship, and others more. If this revolution does not come from them, the metamorphosis will be riskier and more painful. As I don't remember revolutions proposed by the establishment, I believe there will be no other way.

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