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Breaking Bad: Finding Where Journalism Fits in the Digital Era

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Before anyone could comfortably settle into last week, the television started screaming. Someone had blown up Boston. Texas followed suit. By Friday night, anyone following along was curled up in the fetal position, trying to understand why live feeds of Watertown, Massachusetts looked more like Grand Theft Auto.
We were unsure of anything and afraid of everything.
Someone on Twitter commented: “Wife hinted earlier that tomorrow should be declared some sort of national blanket fort day-off.”
It was a devastating week for the United States. It was also a really bad week for journalism. The media is tasked with translating disasters to those of us safely viewing from afar. We needed to do better.
Breaking news has become tricky to cover – or even to define. The term used to refer to the bold headline sitting atop the front page of the morning newspaper. By the following morning there was a new paper with a new headline. Yesterday’s breaking news was reduced to…broken.
So, how many times should a television news program come back from commercial “breaking” the same news? What’s the shelf life on “breaking news?”
We’re a universe away from where we were.
Now, we learn the news by mouse-clicks that deliver dazzling arrays of competing websites. We absorb current events from our smart phones. Minute-to-minute updates in very short soundbites have turned the news into fast food: consumable before a stoplight changes from red to green. Because that’s all we seem to have time for.
Something else happened as the internet’s role in our lives increased. This new, flat world took a second step that made everything unprecedentedly interwoven. Social media entered, stage next, connecting us all.
This was a second, and ongoing, shock to the system. The ground is still shaking.
Last week’s frantic coverage began with flashy headlines erroneously announcing arrests in Boston. By the afternoon those declarations intensified, despite the slow realization that no one had a clue as to what anyone was talking about.
Two populist complaints percolated on Twitter.
The first: “How are the media getting so much so wrong so quickly?”
The second: “Why are they taking so long to report what Twitter told me 20 minutes ago?”
CNN reporters buried their faces in smart phones and looked desperately at the cameras wanting to tell the world what Twitter or Facebook had just told them. Was that ethical? Of course not. But did ratings demand it? Murky waters ahead. The phone’s ringing. It’s the marketing department.
The separation between news and information was on the verge of collapse.
Viewers retaining some semblance of trust with the media wanted to feel vindication. They wanted to see professional correspondents confirming their Twitter feeds. Others wanted to use the information on social sites as evidence supporting the charge that the “mainstream media” was obsolete.
Both groups, and all in between, wanted information. They were presented with scores of retweets that must be true. Now, Anderson Cooper needs to say it.
Say it before the light turns green, Anderson!
CNN News correspondents Cooper and Tapper visually shared their followers’ frustration as they determined what should and should not be said. Holding back meant losing more ratings and watching their industry continue to erode. Acquiescing to the demands of those preferring facts by popular vote must have appeared lucrative if not reassuring.
We’re human. Findings – when overwhelming in any one particular direction – instill confidence. Anyone looking at Twitter last week became very convinced that certain things were fact. The folks on the news were getting things wrong. If we can’t trust the professional few, let’s rely on the loud many.
The loud many were wrong, too.
On Wednesday, Twitter offered droves wrongly declaring that the Texas blast had killed hundreds. The following night, Reddit and 4chan produced endless tweets identifying the two suspects in the Boston Marathon investigation as missing Brown student Sunil Tripathi. Then he was Salah Eddin Barhoum, Mike Mulugeta, and a cadre of other people who were not the actual bombers. By Friday, police were begging people to stop tweeting tactical positions.
The online presence took over the conversation. Reporters tasked with filtering through the digital haystack were overwhelmed. Many just moved on without them. Scrutiny and fact-checking were trampled over by a horde desperate for answers and willing to accept wrong ones for the sake of expediency.
Our reliance on the support of a carefully-vetted truth became archetypal. That’s a new and concerning phenomenon. The trust we have in our free press has withered, and this latest round of failure and wolf-crying might have moved us over a threshold.
A lot of people were ready to throw out the old for the new entirely, even though the results were ultimately the same.
We all got it horribly wrong.
Why does this matter in Alaska? What happens the next time another teenage barista goes missing? Should we ignore reports from KTVA or KTUU? Should we tweet about APD investigations? What happens when someone is accused via a tweet?
The thought of litigating the search for Samantha Keonig through social media sites is terrifying.
I don’t want to thing about what happens when massive online hysteria takes root in a community like Anchorage.
“Full speed ahead” is a good way to describe social media. Social media needs to be used in journalism, but it cannot replace journalism. Pretending otherwise because we want to learn the truth faster will only cause more damage in the end. “Full speed ahead” is not the frequency that truth broadcasts at. Journalism isn’t wrapping information up in a shiny package and presenting it to the public as news. It’s about deliberately and thoroughly collecting information. Scrutinizing it. Processing it. Challenging it.
Then, and not before, you tell the world what just happened.
The media can’t keep up with the impossible pace of Twitter. The attempts to do so cause irreparable harm to any remaining trust towards an institution we need.

1 COMMENT

  1. I was born in raised in Boston. My heart bleeds out for what happened there. I don’t get why it’s a conversation about news. It should be a conversation about what’s goin on. Thanks for calling out the hypocrisy of just caring about feeling like youre on top of it. Pray for Boston.