“Social media coverage” in Boston was almost as bad as the terror attack itself

Apr 22, 2013
social media
"Flawed social media coverage during Boston marathon attack highlights the need for responsible journalism and adaptation to new media reality."
For those interested in social media's role in journalism, last week was a double tragedy. One was the senseless attack at the Boston marathon. The other was the flawed coverage of the hunt for those responsible, where well-meaning amateurs and opportunists turned into a chaotic mob, and traditional media was unsure whether to follow the digital frenzy or risk losing audience by reporting correctly. This episode highlighted that while social media is crucial for gathering information, it can't replace journalism. Society needs journalists and companies that can adapt to the new reality. Without them, there will be consequences.
Journalist Andy Carvin gave a speech at the International Symposium of Online Journalists (ISOJ) during the botched coverage. Carvin, an advocate for social media in journalism and a prominent digital journalist in the United States, apologized for the inappropriate role social media played in the coverage. Carvin was once involved in a blunder when he tweeted that Senator Giffords had died following an attack in Texas.
It's not possible to list all the errors made during the Boston manhunt. Contradictory information appeared on Twitter and was propagated by the media; traditional media journalists confirmed conflicting information that later proved false; the Boston police department tried to be the primary source of information, but ended up adopting a sensationalist tone on its Twitter account while its private radio communication was publicized by whistleblower Anonymous. Authorities, traditional press, social media-active journalists, and the public ran in all directions from Thursday afternoon to Friday late morning. If you read the websites of two reputable media outlets on Thursday night, you'd probably see different information. What Bloomberg referred to as a "surreal crowdsourced manhunt" was the first digital journalistic disaster of 2013, including dangerous mistakes like identifying innocent people as guilty.
I genuinely believe in Carvin's intentions, but I doubt he will change his approach after the Boston debacle. The race for scoops is a perennial feature of journalism. Newspapers and broadcasters have always competed to be the first to deliver the latest important news. The problem now is that deadlines no longer exist - "now" has become the ultimate deadline. Pressured by social media, the media tried to keep pace and fell over themselves, with very few exceptions. This desperation to keep up with the "Zero Deadline" didn't end last week. Carvin, other excellent journalists, and thousands of others still need time to learn not to chase their tails.
The damage to journalism goes beyond shoddy coverage. It's very likely that the Boston bombings will be seen as "the failure of social media," with technology skeptics and conservative journalists saying, "I told you so."
The problem is far from this. Shortly after the attack, a thoughtful post by Jenifer Vanasco in the Columbia Journalism Review warned about potential pitfalls in the coverage of the hunt for the Boston bombers. Jason Abruzzese from the Financial Times made a similar warning. The risk of jumping to conclusions is always high during unfolding events, especially when anyone on Twitter can be a potential Bob Woodward.
The fallout from the failure to inform brings up three observations. First, that journalism can be done by citizens, but there is no such thing as citizen journalism. Journalism requires a set of practices, disciplines, caution, and initiative that only some people possess. Those trained by journalism colleges have the advantage of having learned or honed these skills. This implies that information gathered on social networks can be great starting points for investigations, but they are only confirmed when you or a trusted media outlet or journalist verifies them.
Second, journalists need to learn how to handle social media and the Zero Deadline. Whether you're the editor-in-chief of the Financial Times or someone who uses social networks to search for facts to clarify an event, any ill-prepared activity disguised as journalism, like during the Boston Manhunt, is a disservice and irresponsible. "Comment is free, but facts are sacred," as observed by C.P. Scott, long-time editor of The Guardian in the last century.
Third, the challenge for journalism now is to create validation mechanisms for the large amounts of information generated by crowdsourcing on social networks. The information tsunami won't stop, and that's not necessarily bad. Large amounts of data can reveal aspects that wouldn't have been discussed otherwise. However, they can, as happened in Boston, "collapse under their own weight" (to use a phrase by Jason Abruzzese).
Big news companies still have an opportunity, but they need a quick and effective counter-attack. They still have enough influence to propose a new era of journalism that will be different in all aspects - business, process, audience, relationships, and more. If this revolution doesn't come from them, the metamorphosis will be riskier and more painful. As I don't remember any revolutions proposed by the establishment, it seems clear there's no other way.

© Cassiano Gobbet 2023 - 2024