Citizen ‘journalism’ ran amok in Boston crisis
Armed with iPhones, empowered by Twitter and amplified by the high-tech witch hunt known as Reddit, perhaps more self-appointed citizen “journalists” than ever broadcast whatever came to mind in an instant, unencumbered by such quaint considerations as accuracy, fairness and balance – or concern for the damage that erroneous accusations can inflict.
Fired by outrage and fear at the appalling events in Boston, the crowd blurted, bleated and brayed so much misinformation, so many false accusations and so much paranoia that they heightened the collective angst understandably triggered by the cascading horrors of the marathon bombing, the overnight police shootout and the daylong dragnet that brought a metropolis to a standstill.
If that were not bad enough, some in the mainstream media – the “Bag Men” cover at the New York Post being top of mind – joined the scrum, seemingly succumbing to the relentless pressure of Internet chatter by publishing inaccurate, unverified and defamatory information when they damn well should have known better.
As the free-for-all fulminated on the Net, a smart, sophisticated and sensitive friend from Silicon Valley said he saw no harm in the transition from classic, professionally produced journalism to the unfettered ability of all comers to publish all manner of content in the digital era. Based on what we saw last week, I couldn’t disagree more. Here's why:
To be sure, some citizens helped the authorities by providing useful photographic evidence, while others assisted the mainstream media with valuable eyewitness accounts of the serial madness in Boston.
But those contributions paled beside the many incendiary and irresponsible threads at Reddit and other sites that, to cite two of the most egregious examples, wrongfully named an innocent high school student and a missing college student as suspects in the marathon bombing. Details of each case can be found here and here.
Now, I am the last guy who will argue that professionals are more noble, more believable or more capable of producing quality journalism than unaccredited and unaffiliated individuals who take the time to properly report a development, to piece together a complex investigation or to provide well-considered commentary on matters as they see fit. The epic failure of the MSM to expose the WMD fairytale is all the evidence you need of the fallability of the professional press.
But, apart from occasional abuses by rogues (scoundrels unfortunately materialize in every profession), most professional journalists subscribe to the values of fair inquiry, accurate reporting and balanced presentation. The discipline, oversight and latency inherent in the traditional reporting and editing process helps to promote the accuracy, coherence and, therefore, the reliability of the final product.
When untrained, undisciplined or even unscrupulous people can say anything that comes to mind – as happened repeatedly during the Boston emergency – they do far more harm than good, especially in the sort of confusing and emotional situation we witnessed last week.
While citizen journalists in some cases bring welcome light to matters than need attention, the overwhelming bias in certain online venues seems to be to bring additional heat to matters that are already hot enough. Nowhere was this sort of toxic behavior more evident than at Reddit, an increasingly popular online destination for self-styled scribes when big news breaks.
In addition to vigorously spreading unfounded rumors and defaming the innocent individuals referenced above, Reddit carried a particularly obnoxious discussion on the night of the Boston shootout about what level the suspects would have attained had they been playing Grand Theft Auto, the ultra-violent videogame.
Another popular theme at Reddit was how the mainstream media had missed the story by not naming this or that phony culprit as the real bad guy. It was clear from many of the comments on the site that the crowd put more faith in the stuff they and their colleagues were posting than in what they were getting from the traditional media.
The anti-MSM meme calls to mind the findings of a national survey conducted after the 2012 presidential election by George Washington University for ORI, a strategic marketing firm. The study found that 63% of respondents believed the quality of information about the election was the same or better in the social media than in the mainstream press. Breaking down responses by age group, the researchers found that fully 57% of those between 18 and 25 had more trust in the social media than in the mainstream press.
Perhaps the declining confidence in the MSM is an inevitable by-product of the widespread and growing skepticism in our age with respect to such core institutions as government, business, organized labor and religion. For a snapshot of the decline in confidence over the years, see the chart below.
While the crisis of faith in the traditional institutions of our society is frightening, the apparent transfer of trust to inherently untrustworthy sources of information is even scarier.
None of the above should be construed as a plea to muzzle the the citizen-generated media, as if such a thing were possible or advisable. There is no going back.
But we all need to take a hard look at ways that the democratization of the media enabled by digital technology can be channeled to more constructive purposes than is often the case today.
The job of mustering, coaching, vetting and encouraging quality citizen reporting could well become a major new role for professional journalists. And, who knows? It might even be a path to sustainability for the media companies that, we hope, will continue to employ them.