Beyond the Marathon media mess: Is worse to come?

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.

Not good.

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. Handling a breaking story is what journalists do. It means bird-dogging the story as it unfolds and publishing accounts as noteworthy facts surface, are verified and contextualized, and can be rendered coherently.

What we saw in the marathon aftermath was a breathless determination by news media to scrape and tell—relaying fragments that were half-understood, unconfirmed, sometimes inaccurate, potentially harmful. It was a fundamental corruption of the purpose of journalism: No longer to inform people carefully and accurately, but to foster a simultaneous experience of collective tragedy, even if that awareness comprised fear, panic, and half-truths.

That’s not the news media’s job. Creating simultaneity of experience may or may not be a good thing, but it’s not what journalism is for.

Second, the more air time, the more junk. Once leading news outlets cleared their plates to report live from Boston, they became ravenous for content. Starving eaters aren’t picky eaters. The result was repetition, excessive weight attached to unimportant or unconfirmed gleanings, and a diversion of staff resources from reporting onto presentation.

The newsworthiness of an event isn’t the only consideration in deciding whether to clear the decks of all other programming. There needs to be a reliable flow of honest news. If not, scramble your reporters, let them do their jobs, and wait until they have something to report before you put them on camera. Their job isn’t to fill the air, it’s to get the news. Then, when they do, that’s what bulletins and updates are for.

Errors need to be found, labeled and fixed: Broadcast media seem to have decided that errors need only be corrected, not signposted as wrong, and that falsities vanish when they’re succeeded by truthful reports.

That’s nonsense. At the minimum, unacknowledged corrections leave the audience baffled (“Wait. What about that third bomb? Why aren’t they talking about that anymore?”) Plus, they may produce lasting harm, if somebody is wrongly incriminated and never explicitly cleared.

There’s no reason why live media shouldn’t monitor and correct errors, both on the air and via a longer-lasting, searchable, online log that the public can scour to tie up loose ends.

The flood of amateur surveillance needs to be handled with great care: The most problematic element of the Marathon coverage was the sweeping introduction of surveillance optics into the news flow—not just from official spy cameras, but from the thousands of handhelds whose images were being continuously uploaded and scrutinized.

(Next time, with the spread of photo recognition software, no doubt those pictures will come with more names, addresses and personal information, and there’s likely to be a spread of drone feeds too, as informational entrepreneurs launch camera-laden airbornes to hover over the homes of those whom the online constabulary has deemed worth watching.)

Now, I don’t know whether the impromptu mobilization of digital age informants hastened the apprehension of the Marathon bombers.  But I do fear the distance between crowd-sourcing and mob-sourcing may not far.

The media of the 9/11 era shouldn’t seem overly quaint nowadays—car radios notwithstanding. They had much to answer for, among other things facilitating the march to war against a country that had no role in the attacks. Today’s media have yet to err on that scale, but the Boston Marathon coverage leaves me wondering not whether but when.

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