These days, when something in the world goes very wrong, it seems as if everybody learns about it first on Twitter and Facebook. In the minutes after homemade bombs turned the finish line of the Boston Marathon into a crime scene, terms such as #BostonMarathon shot to the top of Twitter’s Trends list; across the country, office workers first learned of the attack when someone posted a message on a Facebook page. Social networks have become this generation’s radio, the default conduit for the freshest information.
As first responders treated the wounded and the minutes ticked past, news organizations began vacuuming up Twitter and Facebook posts from around Boston and posting the feeds on their Websites, along with “regular” text updates. A Vine video-snippet of a bomb going off near the finish line, knocking a runner off his feet, ended up embedded into dozens of blog postings.
And in a phenomenon familiar to anyone who followed social media in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Sandy and the Newtown shootings, misinformation also began to spread, helped along by well-meaning re-tweets and postings. That forced the authorities to spend time issuing rebuttals: No, nobody had shut down Boston’s cellular networks in order to prevent a bomber from remotely detonating any additional explosives; nobody found a bomb at the nearby John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.
Despite that pushback, wrong or outdated information continued to linger online for quite some time, propelled onwards by an ebbing wave of re-posts. Those will eventually fade away, although a few false data-points will likely become the kernels of the inevitable conspiracy theories.
The rise of social networks as front-line reporting tools, and news Websites’ willingness to package up those data streams into real-time “live updates” Webpages, raises some questions about the current state of journalism.
Ever since the first ink-stained wretch scrawled a story on cheap paper and handed it to someone to be read aloud in the public square, the business of “news” has endured on two principles: accuracy and speed. For quite some time, printing words on newsprint was the fastest means of distributing written information; around the world, news organizations developed an extensive infrastructure to facilitate that dispersion, from over-caffeinated copyeditors to cargo trucks ready to transport bundles of newspapers far and wide.
Then came the Internet—and, as written about ad nauseam, the old ways of creating and distributing news began to collapse. Now the fastest way to transmit written information is to simply type and click “Send” or “Post.” That blinding speed creates a whole host of new issues, however, including concerns over inaccuracies: when every publication in the media sphere is rushing to post a story within five minutes of an event, people are misquoted, numbers are transposed, and the wrong details (or no details) end up in front of millions of hungry eyeballs. Yes, an editor or reporter can enter their publication’s content-management system and fix errors after the fact—but by then, the reader has almost certainly moved on.
Internet-based news also demands elevated numbers of page-views, which translates directly into advertising dollars. That’s led to the rise of Websites such as Buzzfeed, which offer hundreds of stories tailor-made for maximum sharing and reading—lightweight fluff like “The Best Cat GIFS You’ll See This Week.” An April piece in New York magazine features Buzzfeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti, discussing how his Website angles its coverage for maximum social-networking amplification, with certain stories expected to take Twitter and Facebook by storm. He isn’t alone in that quest; other Websites, including Mashable, are working similar angles.
But when a disaster strikes, and many of those same news Websites post “live updates” that incorporate tons of social-networking posts, they face accusations of exploiting the tragedy in the name of pageviews and revenue. That’s not surprising—long before “yellow journalism” became a term, people have charged news organizations with playing up humanity’s worst for their own gain. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombings, online pundits lashed out against Mashable, The Verge, Wired, and other publications that had posted live updates, accusing them of stepping outside their usual coverage areas for cynical gain. (If nobody leveled similar accusations against “mainstream” news publications such as The New York Times, it was because those Websites cover death and disaster as a matter of course.)
“Your tech news site shouldn’t be live-blogging this,” journalist John Paul Titlow Tweeted at one point, a sentiment echoed (and reposted) by others.
“Tech blogs poking their amateurish noses into areas in which they offer neither authority nor insight is depressing,” Milo Yiannopoulos wrote in an email a few hours later. “It’s also spreading: shameless, tasteless pageview-chasing was to be expected after today’s tragedy in Boston from the likes of Mashable and TechCrunch. But how surprising, and how sad, to see The Verge and Wired getting in on the act as well.” This isn’t journalism, he insisted: “It’s attention-seeking.”
But Joshua Topolsky, editor-in-chief of The Verge, defended his publication’s response. “What I can tell you is that this was a major breaking piece of news to us—a national security story, a political story, and a story about terrorism—all areas of coverage for us (past and future),” he wrote in an email. “One that was told very much through technology. When we saw the news breaking on Twitter about what was happening (and all of the images that started pouring in), my first thought was simply ‘we have to cover what is happening.’”
For Topolsky, a term like “tech blog” simply doesn’t apply to what his team is trying to accomplish. “Since day one we have been experimenting and expanding with what’s in our field of coverage, and that will continue unabated,” he continued. “We have never thought of ourselves as a ‘tech’ site (and certainly not a ‘blog’). We think of ourselves as a news site which covers the culture of now (for lack of a better term), the world at this moment, as it is—what matters to people who live and work in 2013.”
The Verge had already sold out its ads for some time, he added. “We don’t chase pageviews, we don’t rank authors on hits. We don’t monetize news stories as they’re breaking.”
Over at Mashable, editor-in-chief Lance Ulanoff suggested that his publication had kept its coverage of the Boston explosions tightly focused. “We [didn’t] want to [compete] with general news outlets that were by-and-large doing an excellent job covering the story,” he wrote in an email. “Instead we sought to enhance clarify an inform on the digital side of the story.” In that spirit, “we looked at whether or not cell service was actually shut down and authorities efforts to collect social media evidence.”
There’s something else to keep in mind about situations like this, he added: “Virtually every story today is, at some level a digital story. So we look at it all and find our relevant angle for our audience.”
In essence, the debate over the media coverage of the Boston situation is the continuation of a very old argument, between publications insisting the public must be informed and critics arguing that such coverage is tantamount to exploitation. The current state of media, in which publications have become more blatant about their hunt for pageviews and advertising dollars, plays into those critics’ arguments. Exacerbating the situation is an increased willingness on the part of those publications to squeeze themselves into “silos” of specific coverage—so that when they do attempt to stretch into new categories, they’re likely to face some blowback.
The reliance on social networks as a reporting tool—and all the inaccuracies that come with that—also doesn’t help publications’ reputation when something is later proven false. When it comes to technology and media, the two are obviously going through some growing pains together.