On the warm, clear morning of 9/11, with the towers still ablaze, a workmate and I set out on foot from our office in Midtown Manhattan toward what later became known as Ground Zero. This was years before smart phones. With electricity out in much of the downtown, people we passed had turned to a decades-old news source: They huddled around the open doors of parked cars and listened to the radios.
It was a different era, a full generation before the ferocious media firestorm ignited by the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings was even thinkable.
With this terrorism incident, whole new constellations of digital age channels were commandeered by thousands of independent originators of comment, speculation, factual reports, pictures, and sounds. Their cascades of reporting reached audiences directly, and engulfed even the most powerful news media in a tidal flood of urgent raw news that gatekeepers had no choice but to sift, reject, ignore, pursue, or publish.
The result, judged by customary standards of care and veracity, was a mess. Legacy media, desperate to keep current with trending online reports, got the number of Boston victims wrong, fingered innocent people as suspects (including a missing college student who, it turned out, had been dead for weeks), relayed falsehoods, reported arrests when there hadn’t been any and a third bombing that never happened, and, for a time, stoked a rancid climate of fear and foreboding well beyond what a measured appraisal of the facts would warrant.
So what lessons might we draw? Here are a few.
First, covering breaking news is one thing; reporting in real time is something else entirely. Continue reading