A grain of salt: As national media faltered in Boston, Twitter filled gaps

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As the dust has settled from a frantic, havoc- and violence-fueled week in Boston, it's easy to go back with 20/20 hindsight and nitpick about what the media got wrong, as it always is after an event like this. But this time in particular, there are multiple lessons so glaring, mistakes so blatant, they will change the way we consume breaking news in the future. My colleague, Sun-Times TV critic Lori Rackl, already took an excellent look at the way CNN came unraveled and failed compared to their 24-7 news cycle counterparts. But my focus is on the way certain events in Boston unfolded online in real-time and left national television coverage in the dust.

With all hell breaking loose in Boston and Watertown, Mass., late Thursday night, the go-to news source wasn't MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News. In a watershed moment - for good and for ill - the center of the news universe was the Internet -- specifically, Twitter. Tens of thousands of users were glued to the stream of the Boston Police Department's scanner and local news live streams featuring reporters on the scene of a gunfight between police and the marathon bombing suspects. Shouts came from over the scanner, officers reporting shots fired and explosives being hurled at them. 

As eyewitness accounts and corroborating video would later prove, it was a harrowing, horrifying scene. And it played out over Twitter, in real time, with transcriptions and photos being circulated in a whirlwind -- a gripping drama.

And where was TV? The national networks were nowhere near the latest events. Even as Twitter and local television affiliates were already on top of the developments, CNN was replaying news shows from earlier in the night. It would take well over 45 minutes for CNN to cut in to events and even then, they broadcast updates from their International desk and simply broadcast a local affiliate's broadcast (something the network would have benefited from had they done this more throughout the week). And let it be said the local affiliates were the stars of this week with their thorough updates that walked that line between fast and accurate far better than the national networks.

The scene in Boston had deteriorated to something akin to Baghdad. From the sounds of confusion and fear coming over the scanner to the videos on the local affiliates, gunshots and explosions ringing out in the dark night of a small, cozy suburb, Twitter was all over the story, updates coming in real-time and retweeted with such speed that users were almost instantaneously up-to-speed on events. Users shared information, links to live feeds, photos, videos from the scene, and helped create a patchwork bigger picture as multiple users pieced together information from multiple sources. The ephemeral nature of Twitter seemed perfect for such a fluid situation, adapting to changing information with great speed and with a communal fact-checking force, users quick to debunk rumors that continued to spread; it was a built-in course correction that kept facts straighter than even CNN had during the week.

But it was far from perfect. Even as Twitter became the go-to news source for those seeking information on the events, there was a downside to the information that was flowing fast and free. So much of the information was a raw repetition of the police scanner, a sketchy practice since as anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows, much of what comes across the scanner later proves to be incorrect. For the first responders, the situation is just as confusing as it seems to those listening to the stream. Throw in the fact that these officers were under fire from semi-automatic weapons and explosives after a chase and an incident that left an MIT officer fatally wounded and it makes sense that the information being relayed might not be entirely accurate. And yet the information was being shared all across social media as it happened by journalists and non-journalists alike, the ticker on one scanner stream topping out at 45,000 listeners at one point.

And, so, even as the information spread like wildfire across the Internet with Twitter being the main forum to consume the harrowing developments - along with the excellent live feeds from local Boston affiliates - social media came to show the greatest weakness of the speed with which information can be shared: it became a sharer of misinformation. And even as the aforementioned nature of self-correction was built in, sometimes bits of information gained so much momentum from the hive-mind that it barreled over those corrections and maintained a stickiness despite its inaccuracy.

Case in point: early reports misidentifying Suspect #2 (now identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev) as a missing Brown student. The name had cropped up on forums like Reddit and 4chan once the FBI had released photos of the suspects earlier that day but hadn't spread to Twitter until several people reported hearing the name mentioned on a police scanner report during Thursday night's events. It was at that point the name circulated with lightning speed in tweets and retweets. While many Twitter users hadn't used the name because the suspect's identity hadn't been verified previously by law enforcement, this reinforced the belief that the missing Brown student was the suspect and praise was heaped on Reddit users who had made the connection.

Not that Twitter was perfect. Far from it. There has been plenty of well-aimed criticism at social media in the days since the events that illustrate the medium's drawbacks and the way bad information from people with little or no journalism training were allowed to flood the Internet with news that was devoured by the masses hungry for any tidbit regardless of how accurate it was. And there were several examples of abuse by even "social media editors" throughout the course of events, the users representing major publications going overboard in their tweets on the events. But, as Craig Kanalley points out for Huffington Post, Twitter was still a valuable tool in breaking news and updating users as to the events happening in Boston. There is still a signal-to-noise ratio problem that's not likely to go away and as long as users understand that Twitter will never replace official media reporting, the grain of salt doesn't seem so big when compared to the failures of mainstream media from last week.

Of course, it was ultimately the ephemeral and even splintered nature of Twitter that saved it from a blasting the likes of which the N.Y. Post received for its cover that identified two completely innocent young men of being suspects. (This happened even after the paper had erroneously skewed the death toll upwards and reported, falsely, a Saudi Arabian man was being held as a suspect.) The calls from Twitter users weren't unanimous; even as the Brown student's name was widely circulated as being the suspect, just as many users expressed skepticism, some noting the mistakes that can be made in the heat of the moment on the police scanner and others noting that no law enforcement had used the name as an actual suspect, just as a potential person of interest. And when NBC's Pete Williams (who actually emerged as the national media's most stable, solid reporter through Thursday and Friday) first suggested in the wee hours of Friday morning that the two suspects had possibly been in the U.S. less than a year, Twitter then began shutting down the Brown rumors. (While Williams' report, which was couched as speculation, ultimately wasn't correct, it did evolve within an hour to the correct identification.)

The misidentification had echoes of the way Adam Lanza's brother was initially tabbed on social media as the shooter in Newtown. Yet users, and even some media outlets, were quick to cite the example of Richard Jewell when talking about the identity of the suspects. (Jewell, of course, was a hero of the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta, responsible for moving people away from the bomb before it went off who was then later widely - and falsely - identified as a suspect by the national media, something that forever ruined Jewell's life.) That course-correction still ultimately kicked in and social media was quick to admit mistakes and move on.

Interestingly, the sharing of information reached such a point this morning that the Boston Police Department had to ask listeners to stop sharing the information of police locations and movements out of fear that the at-large suspect was monitoring the information. Twitter users complied, ceased sharing, and even shamed other users who continued to tweet scanner reports.

Defenders of the news networks were quick to step up and insist the slowness to report on Thursday night's developments was a result of lessons learned from earlier in the week. The information being shared on the Internet, they insisted, was far more volatile as it was a stream of raw, unfiltered and unchecked speculation; the networks were now in the proper mode of getting it right rather than getting it first. The critics responded - and in this case, rightly so - that slowness to even acknowledge events wasn't the same as cautious reporting. Twitter - along with local affiliates and the use of the police scanner - had broken the news, leaving the networks in the dust and displaying the full power of technology and crowd-sourced information.

It is, of course, far from perfect. There was a lot of misinformation tweeted out by regular users with no journalism training so the evolution of social media, and Twitter in particular, should still be taken with a grain of salt. But social media took another step in its rising profile as a source of breaking news (think about the small 2011 East Coast earthquak that was instantly reported on Twitter but took a while to reach the mainstream media outlets). But that community, hive-mind nature of Twitter also allowed users to hold those that spread false information accountable, something we've seen repeatedly (most notably, before this week, during Hurricane Sandy). Those users are held accountable.

And yet neither CNN or the New York Post has issued an apology for their mistakes. While, CNN's were less egregious than the Post's, it was another example of the TV network firmly reporting information that was grossly incorrect (see: their initial reporting that the 2012 Supreme Court ruling overturned Obamacare rather than upheld it). They had failed in the race to get the news out first rather than get it right. And as for the Post, well, who knows what motivated them to stick by their horribly racist tabbing of two dark-skinned teens as the initial suspects. The nature of Twitter is ephemeral and never unanimous and users who report false information have those tweets thrown at them in much the way readers will forever throw the Post's inaccurate cover at them in a Dewey-Defeats-Truman way.

And as this national mainstream media faltered, Twitter likewise rose; the two, on Thursday night, held equal footing. This is not to say that national mainstream media is dead and Twitter is the solution. There are still way too many errors and inaccuracies reported by Twitter as well as proliferation of those errors. But Twitter is a relatively new medium, still evolving, and as we still learn (and, admittedly, stumble) with how to use it, national mainstream media is lowering itself via their growing inconsistencies and battered reputations. Users expect inaccuracies when using social media to gather information and go into consuming that information with a skeptical minds. But they expect outlets like CNN to be accurate when reporting their information and when, between the two, Twitter has proved itself faster and no less accurate in the information shared, it's hard not to see why social media has become a vastly growing supplement for breaking news. Some will always scoff at the idea of citizen journalism, and with thinking that's not off-base, but to dismiss it entirely is to not fully understand the power of a tool like Twitter, mistakes and all.

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This page contains a single entry by Marcus Gilmer published on April 22, 2013 9:30 AM.

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