Thursday, April 18, 2013

Be careful what you wish for

Just a quick post on what "news" seems to mean to many in the 21st Century.

In the wake of the Boston bombings, the story moved fast. So fast, in fact, that several outlets reported incorrect information. Today's latest screwup seems to be CNN reporting that someone had been arrested in connection with the bombing. That turned out not to be true. Ouch.

But what is driving all this incompetence?

It's not a lack of smarts or--I hope--a lack of training. It's the desire to be at the front of the pack in reporting a story in which every detail was being followed, posted, tweeted, retweeted and blogged. The adage is that as a journalist, your goal is to get the story first but your duty is to get it right. But the pressure to lead the digital herd has, apparently, flipped that on its head.

This is not an attack on digital journalism, by the way. The Internet is where the readers are, it's where most people consume their news, and it offers a remarkable spectrum of tools for presenting that news.

And speaking of tools, the wide and instant dissemination of information creates another opportunity... and problem. The opportunity is for crowdsourcing: investigators can easily reach millions of people instantly with information, and those people can instantly reach investigators. The odds that "someone saw something" are high; with the immediacy of the Internet, it is extremely likely that such information winds up in the hands of investigators.

The problem is that crowdsourcing an investigation can quickly and easily snowball into the digital version of vigilante justice. Sites like Reddit and 4Chan, which are essentially fast-moving message boards, have  spawned conversation threads in which users have sifted through the thousands of images from April 15 and "deduced" the identities of several "suspects." (I'm not going to link to the threads for obvious reasons.)

The guy in the green vest was seen near the site of the bombings. SUSPECT!

The quotes, if it's not clear, indicate skepticism. After this New Yorker piece about a guy of Arabic origin--wounded in the blast--who was tackled while running away, it's a little disheartening to see that no one seems to have learned a goddamn thing about jumping to conclusions.

"Arabic running guy" was tackled because he looked suspicious. Suspicious, in this case, basically meant "brown." So maybe we should be a little cautious about posting pictures of people online and linking them to a fatal bombing because they were, for instance, carrying backpacks at the Boston Marathon.

It's easy for anyone these days to post about hearing "chatter" (usually code for "I read it on Twitter") or identify a "suspect" based on nothing more than what the person was wearing or carrying.

Yeah, so many scare quotes. Sorry. But these days, it's scary to see what rushing into a story can do.

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