Monday, April 22, 2013

Citizen ‘journalism’ ran amok in Boston crisis

With an entire city on lockdown and the whole world watching, crowd reporting on the drama in Boston last week reached critical mass. Now, we are facing a critical mess. 

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.


Blogger I Lamont said...

Let's not forget how badly the local and national media botched parts of this story.

On the afternoon of April 17, around the time AP, CNN, the Boston Globe and other professional news outlets were claiming suspects had been arrested or were about to be, I took note of what the anchors on local Boston-area TV stations were saying:

WCVB: "I'm seeing the same tweets you're seeing"

WBZ anchor Jack Williams: "We want to clarify so people understand: We're quoting sources, who are quoting sources."

Williams: "Let me speculate out loud as we try to figure out what in the world is happening here."

Williams: "If you don't mind, let me speculate a little more, Paula"

Williams: "We haven't confirmed everything yet. But something has happened."

On Friday, when the city was effectively locked down, speculation and misinformation was joined by over-reporting of operational details. I saw one of the local stations showing a street address in Watertown that police were investigating, while the studio anchor quizzed the on-scene reporter about the position of snipers. This was after the Boston and State police had requested media not to divulge details that might endanger the lives of officers.

Is it any wonder that people have a tough time trusting professional news organizations?

5:40 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

In frustration I tweeted some publishers know-how in the midst of the Boston tragedy - tweets I later that evening gathered on my blog:

Education of the crowd is definitely a way forward for traditional media. A strong relationship builder.
I expressed that opinion in many different contexts the last years, but maybe most in detail here:

It is a crossroads: either legacy media spread their knowledge - and benefit from the bonding it will create with those they teach. Or the crowd will learn from someone else, turning their backs against - what they will perceive as - the non-relevant media.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

In frustration, I tweeted some publisher's know-how in the midst of the Boston tragedy. Tweets I later gathered on my blog:

That education of the crowd is a way forward for legacy media is something I have advocated for years now, maybe outlined most in detail in this blogpost, published on

We are at a crossroads: either legacy media start teaching their knowledge to the crowd, drawing benefit from the bonding effect this will have on the (former) audience. Or the crowd will learn from someone else, turning their backs on what they will perceive as the non-relevant media.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Kansan said...

The Citizen Journalism Academies the Lawrence Journal-World and the University of Kansas School of Journalism operated were right on target and attracted quality participants. Ethics and accuracy were stressed. Military, law enforcement, professionals in many fields, students and "ordinary" citizens took part. Curiously, nobody in the media or media-related fields was interested in writing about them.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Kansan said...

The Citizen Journalism Academies presented by the Lawrence Journal-World and the University of Kansas School of Journalism were right on target with Alan's final paragraph. They attracted quality participants, who had to apply to be selected. Military, law enforcement, professionals in many fields (even a judge), students and "ordinary" citizens took part. Ethics and accuracy were stressed. Professional journalists, KU Dean Ann Brill, former KU Knight prof Peggy Kuhr (now dean at Montana) and others served as instructors. Curiously, nobody in the industry's media fields seemed interested in writing about or accepting papers about the program. These citizen journalists certainly were not some rag-tag bunch of goofballs who simply had access to digital devices. The academies were a bright spot among the Journal-World's numerous ventures, but they received the least attention from the industry.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Bill Lisleman said...

I stumbled on (not the web service but actually just searching around) you blog today. Nice post. I don't use reddit and after reading this I might just avoid it. Our world is getting too instant with news events. I guess it goes back to the days of scooping stories for the newspapers.

1:57 PM  

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