Are breaking-news reporting errors inevitable?: This week has been dominated by one unimaginably awful news story — the murder of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — and neither old nor new media had their finest moments in covering it. We’ll look first at the problem of misinformation about the shootings, particularly online, and then in the next item we’ll tackle the issues of over-coverage, privacy, and interviewing children.
As the story unfolded on Friday, reporters got virtually every detail of the story wrong at some point or another; they erroneously reported that the shooter was Ryan Lanza, that his mother was a teacher at the school, that he was let in by school officials, that he killed someone in New Jersey first, and that he primarily used a handgun. All of those errors found their way onto TV coverage, as NowThisNews documented.
Online, one of the big errors came after the shooter was mistakenly identified as Ryan Lanza (it was actually his brother, Adam). Ryan’s Facebook page was quickly found and identified by news orgs, then barraged with threats from users. Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis issued a mea culpa for his role in erroneously publicizing a Ryan Lanza Twitter account, and The Guardian’s Michael Wolff targeted NPR’s social media maestro Andy Carvin as “a fevered spreader of misinformation” (though Carvin responded point-by-point).
There were plenty of explanations for these errors, most of them quite reasonable. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan talked to a Times editor who pinned them on the pressure to be faster than ever in a Twitter-dominated news cycle. The Washington Post quoted a professor, W. Joseph Campbell, who cited our tendency to fill in the blanks with our narrative assumptions during complicated, incomplete news events. BuzzFeed and the Post’s Erik Wemple noted that several of these errors originated with law enforcement officials, rather than media speculation.
Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon noted that breaking news in process has always been messy, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said the crowdsourced news verification that goes on online looks even messier in process, though its benefits outweigh its disadvantages. That why, Reuters’ Jack Shafer said, you should know not to put much stock in initial reports in the first place.
But others said those explanations simply weren’t good enough. Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times argued that we need to rid ourselves of the notion that errors like these are simply the inevitable result of a real-time news environment. This “sounds like a forward-looking acceptance of social media’s impact,” he said, “but it’s really embracing a path which could destroy the news industry.” Mashable was one of many echoing the “be right, not first” refrain, and Charles Apple of the American Copy Editors Society said that not every fact in a breaking news story needs to be reported immediately. Poynter’s Craig Silverman advised journalists to make a virtue of restraint and note to readers what they’re not reporting. For non-journalists, GigaOM’s Bobbie Johnson urged us not to join the rush-to-judgment social media mob.
There was also some debate about the degree to which social media itself is to blame for real-time reporting errors. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said it’s unfair to pin any of the Sandy Hook reporting errors on social media. Cartoonist Matt Bors, who was a Facebook friend of Ryan Lanza’s, said social media didn’t get anything right or wrong on this story, but it does tend to bring out the worst in people in these situations. Reuters’ Ben Walsh argued that Twitter is adopting much of cable news’ high-speed cycle of unverified facts and instant analysis during breaking news, while Danny Groner at The Huffington Post said social media is better at delivering insight than information for these stories.
Guardian reporter Katie Rogers said we’re dealing with complicated consequences of the fact that social media is finally being taken seriously as a publishing platform, while David Holmes of PandoDaily wondered if Facebook needs to take any action when people are threatening a user based on false information.
A call for restraint in reporting tragedy: After all those initial errors, the news media did what they usually do in the wake of tragedies like this — they swarmed the community involved, trying to wring out every last drop of information and emotion for an audience they believe to be insatiable. Though The New York Times depicted a more mixed set of reactions, Digital First’s Adrienne LaFrance and the BBC’s Jonny Dymond reported on the angry exasperation this media deluge was causing among Newtown residents.
Others outside Newtown were indignant as well. Microsoft researcher danah boyd urged the media to let Newtown residents grieve with dignity and chastised the public for “gawking at the public displays of pain.” Baristanet founder Debbie Galant and The Week’s Matt Lewis were among the others calling for the media to show some respect and go away.
One practice in particular that chafed at many observers was reporters’ interviews with children who had been in the school during the shooting. The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield chronicled the social media outrage, and Time’s James Poniewozik and several experts interviewed by The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone and Politico’s Dylan Byers also urged journalists to refrain from interviewing children. Poynter’s Mallary Tenore and Kelly McBride offered some tips for determining whether and how to interview children in traumatic situations, and Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman also gave some advice on soliciting social media interviews after tragedies without being insensitive.
There were a few proposed solutions to the media overload: One Romenesko reader suggested a pool system to reduce the number of reporters on the scene in tragic situations, an idea Debbie Galant endorsed. Others called for less information about the killers themselves, in order to reduce the attention-seeking motive and copycat crimes. Digital First’s Steve Buttry called for news orgs not to name the killers in public shootings or try to psychoanalyze them, and sociology prof Zeynep Tufekci also suggested that law enforcement not release details of the methods of the shootings, though former newspaper editor Guy Lucas said such ideas would be impractical.
The Guardian’s Martin Robbins and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Curtis Brainard also decried the attempts at amateur psychology after the shooting, and Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon argued that we need better reporting on mental illness in order to properly understanding these shootings.
Instagram uproar and the free online service model: Facebook’s newest property, Instagram, got a taste this week of some of the user outrage over privacy and content rights that Facebook is used to getting. Instagram updated its terms of service to ensure that, as The New York Times explained, it could share users’ photos with Facebook and advertisers, even using them in ads without their permission. The terms, which go into effect next month, also note that Instagram ads may not be labeled as ads.
Instagram users were quick to express their outrage, and Wired’s Mat Honan deleted his account in protest. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Kurt Opsahl and journalism professor Dan Gillmor also made the case for concern over the changes, noting that this is in keeping with Facebook’s spotty record of user rights and that users can’t opt out without quitting the service entirely. Instagram’s Kevin Systrom responded to the uproar with a post (kind of) clarifying the changes and insisting the company doesn’t intend to sell users’ photos or use them in ads.
There was quite a bit of backlash to this user backlash, though. Tech bloggers came up with a variety of reasons that the anger over these changes were overblown: Instagram has always had plenty of license to use users’ photos and advertisers are still restricted in what they can do (The Verge); users shouldn’t have expected any different with Facebook running Instagram (Forbes); most Instagram photos are essentially ads anyway (Forbes); most of these angry users didn’t read the terms of service in the first place (Techdirt); and users always keep threatening to quit social media services over this type of thing (Time).
The most commonly recurring counter-argument to Instagram alarmists was essentially that this is how free online services make money: They get the rights to the content people post there and use it to get money from advertisers. “This is the cold, confusing, largely invisible relationship that defines the internet as we know it today,” said BuzzFeed’s John Herrman, arguing against the idea that we “own” any of our content on the web. New York’s Kevin Roose and Gizmodo’s Sam Biddle also made this point.
Mathew Ingram of GigaOM and Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic made a similar point, contending that this is the inevitable result of using social media services you don’t pay for. “Truly, the only way to get around the privacy problems inherent in advertising-supported social networks is to pay for services that we value. It’s amazing what power we gain in becoming paying customers instead of the product being sold,” Madrigal wrote.
Web editing veteran Derek Powazek pushed back against that “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” mentality, saying that we still have the right to complain about how companies treat their customers, and paid services won’t necessarily treat them any better. Likewise, CNET’s Casey Newton countered that it is, in fact, perfectly reasonable to be upset with this move by Instagram.
John Paul Titlow of ReadWrite said Instagram’s quality may suffer as professional photographers leave over this change, and Free Press’ Josh Stearns suggested it might be time for news organizations to start building open, non-commercial alternatives to these services as a way to give back to the web that’s given them so much.
Funding a free press: A new foundation, launched this week, intends to be a conduit allowing anonymous donations to organizations like WikiLeaks that do journalistic work geared toward government transparency. The New York Times’ David Carr has a good introduction to the group, called the Freedom of the Press Foundation. The highest-profile person involved is Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, but the foundation’s board also includes Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald and ties to the Electronic Freedom Frontier and Free Press.
Several of those board members wrote pieces explaining what the foundation is about. Ellsberg and co-founder John Perry Barlow described the foundation as a way to preserve fledgling government watchdog efforts, as did Greenwald, who focused on its mission to thwart government secrecy. Free Press’ Josh Stearns also tied the group’s goals to the challenges of journalism collaboration and decentralized news consumption.
Outside the board, The Guardian’s Dan Gillmor noted that the foundation’s broader base could help protect against the type of blocks by financial institutions that WikiLeaks faced, insulating each individual group from public and private pressure. And GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram expressed hope that crowdfunding can help fill the gap for some of these valuable public-interest journalism projects.
Reading roundup: Beyond Newtown (and Instagram), there were tons of other media stories going on this week, too. Here’s a quick rundown:
— The BBC released a damning internal report on its handling of the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal and previous cancellation of an investigative broadcast into the scandal. Here’s a review of the report from The Guardian and The New York Times, as well as some key points from The Telegraph. BBC News’ deputy director is being forced out as a result of the report, but former BBC director-general (and current New York Times Co. CEO) Mark Thompson was spared criticism in the report.
— NBC News foreign correspondent Richard Engel and his production team were released this week after being kidnapped for five days in Syria. NBC tried to enforce a media blackout on the kidnapping, but news began to creep through via social media and blogs after a few days, as BuzzFeed documented. Poynter and the Christian Science Monitor outlined the debate over media blackouts during journalist kidnappings, and Gawker presented a pro and con.
— The Guardian and The Washington Post both announced they were taking their Facebook social reading apps off of Facebook, with The Guardian shutting it down and the Post moving it to a standalone site. Former Guardian designer Martin Belam explained how their app was conceived and why Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” didn’t work, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram took the opportunity to note that with a Facebook app, Facebook, not news orgs, control the content.
— Finally, tech entrepreneur Anil Dash wrote a brilliant two-part post on the more open, user-centric, non-commercially oriented social web we’ve lost and what we can do to rebuild it. Reuters’ Felix Salmon expressed sympathy for Dash’s nostalgia but said that Facebook’s model has shown that “the way to win capitalism is to break the web.” And Free Press’ Josh Stearns urged professional journalism to play a role in rebuilding the open social web.