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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.

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By Sun-Times Tech Reporter Andy Ihnatko

A calm and sober commentary on the denigrate to the Instagram terms of service -- sorry, grammar fiends, but "update" seems like too positive a word -- will follow after a bit of business:

Told you so told you so TOLLLLLD you so told you soooo...

And here I invite you to imagine me singing and doing a smug little dance in my office. It is the signature dance of someone who uses Facebook as infrequently as a person with nieces and nephews under the age of 45 can get away with. The singing is in the key of one who never used Instagram much to begin with and stopped entirely once the company had been acquired.

Yes, it's beneath me.

I apologize.

Continuing.

Once again it bears repeating that an agreement with any tech company for any service -- free or paid -- is no different from an agreement with any other kind of madman. At best, they're going to stick to the original terms. But it's likely that at any point, they're going to alter your deal...and it'll never ever be altered to tilt things in your favor.

Here's the new "Take the Princess and the Wookiee to my ship" section from Instagram's new TOS which goes into effect in January:

"To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you. If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to this provision (and the use of your name, likeness, username, and/or photos (along with any associated metadata)) on your behalf."


What does that actually mean? The real answer is on a whiteboard somewhere inside the Menlo Park headquarters of Facebook, Instagram's parent company. Everything else is open to speculation. It seems to me that this new wording translates roughly to Instagram allowing the familiar social features of other companies' services and apps to support Instagram.

Example: Your friend is using a Foursquare-style app; the app has access to all of his Instagram friends; app tells him "Oh! You know, your friend Bonfiglio Mertz was here in Deep Ellum two months ago and he posted three photos from this particular bar..." The app is probably supported by ads and that ad system might be clever enough to pull in content related to paid sponsors.

And at some point this idea goes far enough along at Instagram HQ that some lawyer decides that Instagram's current TOS is vague enough on that point that maybe they should slip in an update. And because nobody in the room at the time has ever used the Internet before, nobody wonders what will happen when someone discovers the change.

It's also a smart thing for Instagram to put into place if they intend to expand the service beyond its original "snap a photo, make it look like hell with arty filters, and then share it with friends" scope. Facebook allows you to "like" commercial products and insert them into your timeline; if Instagram wants to extend the "Corporations are people" idea to their own social network, then that's another smart reason for the company to amend their TOS. Copyright law for commercial usage of images is nonlinear, and most of the photographers I know apply a "if it's in my shot and has a Social Security number, try to get a signed waiver from it" policy.

This isn't, in fact, terribly far away from Facebook's existing content policy. Section 10 of Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities makes plain that they're going to try to make as much hay as possible from the content you choose to post. However, that same policy also says: "This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it."

This limits Facebook's ability to change the obvious and traditional nature of your relationship with the service; they can't sell a photo of your puppy to a pet food company as a stock image because Facebook's license to that image ends when you remove it from the service.

But as worded, yes, your Instagrammed photos can now be used in third-party ads without your consent and without compensation. Would they sell your photos? Naw. But how about an electronic billboard in Times Square advertising a dodgy life insurance plan, where the background is a slideshow of hourly Instagram photos tagged "Family"? That seems like an idea that would come up in a spitballing session. It makes sense; it might sell and there'd be nothing in Instagram's TOS to prevent Instagram from moving forward.

It's slightly baffling that Instagram allowed this mess to happen because we've seen this exact same scenario play out over and over again, since the development of the first services that allowed users to post their own content.

Initially, these services would include a functionally-harmless, yet absolutely imperative, section that granted the company a license to copy, retransmit, and repurpose your content. Why would they want that power? Well, because the service is on a huge server farm and they need the legal authority to move your photos from one spot to another. They also need the authority to allow other users to manipulate and download your images, even if you've flagged your cute ocelot photo with the necessary permissions.

So! Someone at the company cuts and pastes in some legal boilerplate, she updates the TOS, goes out for a long lunch, and returns to find that her wing of the office has been sacked and set on fire. This is why Google and other services present their TOS in its usual impenetrable legalese, but with asides of Plain English that clarify, and limit, their powers to just those things that allow them to operate the service and deliver content. Twitter's TOS is annotated, in fact, to make their intentions clear.

Instagram clearly botched this one. The new terms were due to become active in mid-January. There's little doubt in my mind that the company will backpedal and release a revision to the revision that limits Instagram's new rights to just what they actually need in order to pull off what they've got planned. God knows what that might be.

There are a bunch of important takeaways, however.

First and foremost, never forget that when you're using an Internet service you're almost always a product and not a customer. When Facebook paid a billion dollars for Instagram, it wasn't because they wanted to become benefactors...the Medicis of food photos and images of dogs wearing funny hats. It's because there was money to be made. More often than not, the "deal" struck between the user and the provider is balanced. Google Maps is an awesome app, and the more I use it, the more information Google collects about traffic and roads and the more valuable the product becomes. But that balance can change in an instant.

Secondly, the agreement you strike with a service is always transferrable. If you've granted BongoDrive.SE perpetual rights to the photos and data you upload to the service and the they go out of business, then whoever buys the company's assets will own it instead. And because the TOS is subject to amendment, they can do whatever they want with that stuff.

In Instagram's case, it was like Mother Kate's All-Natural Free-Trade Save The Trees-Brand Tooth-Cleaning Powder being bought by an immense health and beauty conglomerate. They don't care about producing a natural product with low environmental impact. They want the brand and the customers.

I was never a fan of Instagram. I liked its simplicity; I just didn't need to start feeding yet another social network, thank you very much. If you're thinking of jumping ship, I have to recommend Flickr. Yup, they were bought by Yahoo! a few years ago. But if the company damaged the service, it was only because they barely seemed to be aware that it existed. That's relatively benign, compared with Facebook seeking to recoup their billion-dollar investment and sorting Instagram's membership by weight and the likely amount of marbling in their meat.

Fortunately, the wheel's turned. They've released a terrific new Flickr mobile app that's everything it should have been in 2008. It even includes Instagram-style filters. But please, I beg of you...don't use them.

Maybe Flickr's best feature is the fact that it's been around for eight years and has firmly locked its identity as "a social service for photos." They went through their own TOS-mageddon a long time ago. Their rights to your images are clear and fair.

But remember what I said. It's still a service owned by a company, and its the nature of a company to keep rooting around sofa cushions for loose change. That circumstance is bad enough when you're the one losing his or her quarters and dimes. And it's worse when a company like Facebook keeps treating you like the sofa.

UPDATE: Instagram says "not so fast!" Co-founder Kevin Systrom blogs on TOC clarification and correction.

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UPDATE: It now appears even the report that Lanza's mother was a teacher at the school, which is mentioned in the original column below, is likely false, according to teachers who talked to the Wall Street Journal. - MG


As details of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut unspooled today, there were the typical moments of confusion when trying to assess a situation of this magnitude. This is to be expected as media waited on information to come from this tiny hamlet 65 miles northwest of New York City, a city that had seen only one murder in the last decade. 

But even as the mainstream media tried to collect as much information as possible, those same outlets continued a disturbing trend of reporting information without confirmation, creating not only confusion but also reporting that was downright wrong.

Case in point: the identity of the shooter. 

CNN was among the first major outlets to cite sources as naming the shooter as Ryan Lanza, 24. As soon as that information was released, it took savvy Internet users just seconds to locate a Facebook profile of a Ryan Lanza who lived in Hoboken and was from Newtown. The link of the profile rocketed across Twitter within seconds and given the name and the fact he was connected to the deaths in both Newtown and Hoboken (more on Honboken in a minute) it was immediately assumed this was the shooter . . . until it wasn't. 

Soon after that development, the same people who had shared the profile were backtracking after that Ryan Lanza posted several times about not being the shooter. Mass confusion reigned as to the identity of the shooter. If it wasn't this Ryan Lanza, then which Ryan Lanza was it?

Later in the afternoon, CNN reported that Ryan's younger brother was among the dead in the school while the Associated Press reported he was in police custody. This came shortly after reports that Nancy Lanza was a teacher at the school and also found dead at the school (more on that in a moment) and another family member was found dead in Hoboken (again, more in a minute). 

Media outlets were forced to pull back their reports that Ryan was the shooter and as the body count rose, those outlets couldn't make hide nor hair of the shooter's identity. Eventually, authorities stepped up at a press conference and straightened things out: Ryan's younger brother, Adam, was the shooter, and Ryan, who was not involved in the incident, was cooperating with authorities.

As for Hoboken, there were numerous reports of a family killed there that were repeated for hours until that story suddenly disappeared. 

As more details came to light, that aspect was dropped from the main coverage with barely a mention. There is an investigation going on in Hoboken connected to the case but it's a search of Ryan Lanza's apartment and there are, as far as reports go tonight, no victims in New Jersey. And as for actual victims, while reports that Adam and Ryan's mother Nancy was a kindergarten teacher at Sandy Hook proved true, the report that her body was inside the school was not. It wasn't until late in the afternoon that her body was discovered at her home, allegedly shot by Adam (at least of this writing) before he proceeded to the school.

And that's not even touching on reports that have to be followed up on regarding an allegedly missing girlfriend of the shooter (whether this meant Ryan or Adam is unclear since it came during that time of confusion over the shooter's identity) as well as the initial reports of multiple shooters at the school.

That the number of dead fluctuated or rumors of a second gunman were circulated is less egregious than some of the other errors. What's most troubling is the way that outlets - particularly CNN - pushed this information, willing to go on the air with information from anonymous, unnamed sources, rather than to sit back and wait. 

The idea of being fast and first is an important one to news outlets, while the importance of being right seems to have fallen by the wayside. CNN - and Fox News - proved that earlier this year when they were the first to report on the Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare - and got it wrong

The idea of being first and wrong seems increasingly less important to outlets than being second and right.

While old school journalists lament the rise of blogs and the misinformation they allegedly spread, it's the mainstream media making these gross mistakes. These errors become more glaring in the age of social media, an incorrect tweet by a major outlet with tens of thousands of followers taking mere seconds to be spread to ten times that number of Twitter users. It's a game of telephone gone horribly wrong, mangling clarity and facts in the process while Wolf Blitzer's gleeful twinkle relays the information - wrong or right - to an audience of thousands if not millions. This is not a Twitter troll spreading rumors during a hurricane (see: @comfortablysmug drama during superstorm Sandy). This is a major network spreading news without taking time to ask about the accuracy of that information. 

I can't help but think of Hurricane Katrina (full disclosure: I was a New Orleans resident at the time) when reports of widespread looting and looters shooting at helicopters spread only to be proven false - though the public perception of an astronomical level of lawlessness remains. 

Likewise, one has to wonder about Richard Jewell, the man run through the wringer for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing in a bizarre hero-to-prime-suspect-back-to-hero cycle. Family members say he was never the same once media attention on him turned and he came under scrutiny as a suspect, only to be forgotten upon vindication. 

Hell, media being wrong on big stories has been a regular occurrence since "Dewey Defeats Truman."

But in a time when reports spread so fast, when information travels so quickly that it will be seen by thousands within seconds, there is a new responsibility of self-policing these media outlets need to abide by, particularly when the subject calls for it. This isn't misreporting the results of an election - which is bad enough - this is reporting of a tragedy in which nearly two dozen children were viciously killed. The limits are being tested, the line crossed and stomped on, regardless of reputation, pushing these outlets down to the level of those so-detested blogs, leaving readers in the cold, confused and less informed than they've ever been.

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