When The News Breaks Too Fast

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On Friday afternoon (Sydney time) — practically last year in social media terms — a police officer was shot on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was Thursday night in Boston. Two hashtags started appearing in my Twitter feed: #watertown and #MITshootings.

It wasn’t immediately clear what was happening, only that something was happening. I tuned in to follow the action. There weren’t any stories about the shooting on the homepages of the big US news outlets then, not even flashing headlines about breaking news. More and more tweets piled up but there was nothing on the radio.

A police officer had been shot, a chase was underway. At this early stage were no confirmed connections between the shooting, the chase and the Boston Marathon bombings. Tens of thousands of people tuned into the Boston Police scanner and started tweeting what they heard. My feed started to get very clogged as the frenzy on the scanners compounded the fear and suspense.

Unconfirmed reports surfaced of a bomb being thrown during a gunfight and a Code Black alert at Mount Auburn Hospital. In the background fluttered reports that the San Francisco Airport was being evacuated. And then that it was not.

If you watch a few big stories break on Twitter, you see some patterns emerge. “This is what we know for sure” announcements get wheeled out and retweeted with tiresome regularity. These declarations are often proved to be false, or at least warrant qualification and clarification, as punters rush to make authoritative calls and get in first with a new angle or nugget of information.

In Boston, there were a couple of journalists on the scene — but not many. They included Wesley Lowery from the Boston Globe, who was reporting from Watertown, and science writer Seth Mnookin, who was at MIT. Their tweets, especially Lowery’s, were marked by cautious language: “alleged shooting”, “unconfirmed reports”. They restricted their accounts to what was immediately before them, or reported speech. They were acting like reporters, in other words.  

Other non-journalists reported from the scene, posting photographs and adding their own observations and responses. These tweets tended to convey the emotional immediacy of the chaos and expressed the fear and confusion on the ground.

Commentary on the role of social media itself has become a ubiquitous feature of social media reporting of big news events. From spills in Australian politics to political uprisings in the Middle East, there are pundits ready to suspend circumspection and deliver motherhood statements about the transformation of the media as we know it. Say what you like about traditional media outlets, they tend not to exhibit the intense — and often poorly timed — self-reflexivity that characterises the social media arena.  

As conflicting reports of the FBI being on the scene and suspects being detained, arrested and released bounced around, this tweet from Bostonian Peter Stringer got a lot of game:

It was retweeted by hundreds of people in a few minutes. It’s representative of a widely-shared view. Cinema critic and Crikey web guy Luke Buckmaster, for example, tweeted:

I took a few notes on Friday arvo because I was ducking offline for a day and wondered what the lay of the land would be when I re-emerged. Most of those notes and questions seem obselete, especially as to the links between the shootings and the marathon bombing.

Traditional media didn’t die on Friday, and if Twitter changed news coverage forever we’re all the worse off for it. Reddit users wrongly identified one of the suspects in the chase as a missing Brown University student. That information went viral and even though it’s subsequently been proved wrong, it’s still available online. The false identification was picked up by some traditional media outlets as they rushed to keep up with social media. US users were loud in their complaints that cable news wasn’t covering the chase early on — and critical of what they saw as lacklustre coverage from CNN.

As Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate:

“Besides the mistaken identification of the Brown student, Thursday night’s tweeters—including many local reporters covering the manhunt—couldn’t get straight whether one or two suspects had been arrested, whether the suspects were dead or alive, and whether they were light- or dark-skinned. Even more weirdly, many on Twitter were now making fun of CNN for being behind—for not following the news in the same slipshod manner as Twitter.”

Car chases and gun fights have always happened fast. What’s changed is the expectation of how close to the events the news media should be. Where once we had war correspondents phone in dispatches, we’ve now got embedded media. Social media can keep up – as it did with the MIT shootings and chase — but it can’t always make sense of what is happening, or even get the facts straight. The rush to be first can come at the cost of ethical, diligent journalism.

So we get repetitious commentary, lots of errors, highly emotive calls for justice, rumour, speculation, misinformation — and in among all the noise, some immediate, astute accounts of the breaking news. In Manjoo’s words, “Breaking news is broken. That’s the clearest lesson you can draw about the media from the last week, when both old- and new-media outlets fell down on the job.”

We should certainly be asking more of our big media outlets — but not that they emulate the speed of social media reporting. The reverberations of the Boston bombings will be felt for a long time yet. We don’t just need breaking news to understand such events, we need analysis produced by journalists who wait to confirm facts and check their sources. Railing against the mainstream media for being slow serves only to undermine these valuable processes.

The expectation that large news organisations respond as quickly to events as Twitter users promotes lazy, shallow reporting and analysis. If journalism is the first draft of history, Twitter is the scattered set of notes for that first draft. Useful, necessary — but in need of revision. In-depth commentary should take a longer time to emerge. It’s a given that social media is entrenched as an element of news reporting but as the many debacles in the reporting of the Boston bombings reveal, real-time news has its limits.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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