Stemming the misinformation epidemic: As The New York Times’ Brian Stelter pointed out, the media — both old and new — played as large a role in the manhunt that followed last week’s Boston Marathon bombing as it has in any major news story in recent history. There are a myriad of angles to this story, but we’ll start with misinformation on traditional media, then social media, then cover the Reddit-fueled crowdsourced investigative efforts.
First off, there was some fantastic reporting done on this story, led by the local media applauded by the Columbia Journalism Review and Mashable, as well as NBC’s Pete Williams. The New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, also praised her paper’s restraint. That kind of quality was the exception, though, as a parade of news orgs were skewered for reporting false information (as well as heaps of mindless speculation).
The AP chastised itself, but two other news orgs that didn’t were the subject of particular ridicule: The New York Post was savaged for misreporting the number of deaths and identifying the wrong suspects by Reuters’ Jack Shafer and Salon’s Alex Pareene, with the latter predicting its demise. Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns the paper, tried to defend it. CNN was also singled out for its inept coverage, which was broken down well by The New York Times’ David Carr. (CNN did score some high ratings for its coverage, and former CNN anchor Ali Velshi argued that Twitter critics were excessively harsh toward it.)
So what exactly was at the root of this journalistic failure? The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple argued that the problem with the poor coverage on cable news is…cable news, specifically that its round-the-clock format encourages journalists “to find and tout breaking news all the time, even when it’s not breaking.” Farhad Manjoo of Slate said the problem can’t be tied to a particular medium, but that breaking news itself is broken, especially because we’re enticed to follow it too closely.
Traditional news orgs had their defenders as well. Jack Shafer of Reuters said errors have long been an accepted part of breaking news reporting, provided audiences knew journalists would acknowledge them, and Slate’s John Dickerson said we have to expect them as part of the speed we now demand from news. At the Columbia Journalism Review, Bill Grueskin defended the type of incremental breaking-news scoop journalists were chasing last week, saying they can be critical to revealing bigger, deeper stories.
The other hub of confusion and misinformation was on social media, though, as Choire Sicha of The Awl pointed out, some of that “useless, misleading and random noise” was coming from the social media editors of traditional news orgs, too. Storyful’s Mark Little argued that the true problem isn’t so much social media as a “me-first” form of journalism. In its place, he called for journalism that can humbly pull a coherent narrative out of social media’s noise. And NPR social media editor Andy Carvin urged journalists to be less breathless and more transparent and proactive in helping readers understand rumors and the process of reporting breaking news.
BuzzFeed’s John Herrman and Ben Smith took a similar tack, advising journalists to acknowledge that online readers are going to see rumors and misinformation anyway, and to focus on contextualizing it. Reuters’ Felix Salmon countered that journalists shouldn’t let misinformation set the news agenda, even if it’s being widely distributed online. The Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan collected some principles from a variety of perspectives at a Columbia panel on breaking news reporting.
A particularly smart strain of advice came from journalism professors Jeff Jarvis and Mike Ananny. Jarvis posited that in times of breaking news, the best way for journalists to add value is to tell the audience what they don’t know, and Ananny made a thoughtful case for the role of silence in journalism, explaining the trust implicit in it and offering some practical principles for when it’s appropriate. “Instead of assuming that more speech is always better,” he wrote, “it might be a bigger public service to speak and consume attention only if you have a clear and defensible reason for doing so.”
There were also some technical solutions proposed: Masdar Institute researchers introduced a platform to verify information on social media, and Wired’s Mat Honan suggested a Twitter function that would allow users to edit or correct tweets, which would allow it to re-pop up in the streams of everyone who saw the original. Josh Stearns of Free Press also started a discussion on developing norms to indicate accuracy and validity of information on Twitter.
Reddit and crowdsourcing bad info: Reddit users were particularly prolific (and reckless) in sharing information as the search for suspects went on, coordinating their own attempts to identify those suspects. It played a key role in misidentifying a missing man named Sunil Tripathi (whose body was found this week) as a suspect, in what was probably the most potentially damaging reporting error in the bombings’ aftermath. Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic traced the development of the false information, and Reddit general manager Erik Martin apologized for a “witch hunt,” while the creator of the subreddit in question talked to The Atlantic Wire about its role.
The Atlantic Wire’s Rebecca Greenfield noted that what especially drew the news media’s attention to Tripathi was Reddit users doing something Reddit deeply frowns on — naming names and personal information, also known as doxxing. The redditors’ behavior drew broad condemnation: Media analyst Alan Mutter saw it as further evidence of the great damage that can result when “untrained, undisciplined or even unscrupulous people can say anything that comes to mind,” and The Guardian’s Charles Arthur and The New York Times’ Nick Bilton expressed similar sentiments.
Reddit had plenty of defenders as well. The Guardian’s Fruzsina Eordogh said Reddit didn’t need to apologize, because several mainstream news orgs made similar errors without apologizing for them. Alex Fitzpatrick at Mashable argued that Reddit can’t be considered a single community to blame as a whole (Jesse Brown of Maclean’s made a similar point), and its users shouldn’t be considered journalists. Ad Age’s Simon Dumenco also pointed out that Reddit’s most reliable information tended to be given the most visibility from its users.
In a pair of posts, Mathew Ingram of paidContent mounted a fuller defense of Reddit, arguing that news organizations could learn from the successes of Reddit users’ open verification practices instead of simply dwelling on its failings. Canadian student Jeff Cho also praised its transparency, while the London School of Economics’ Charlie Beckett said journalists and contributors to sites like Reddit need to pay attention to each other in order to improve their own practices. Meanwhile, the Seattle Times’ Monica Guzman urged us to take responsibility for the fact that we are now a “self-informing public,” and The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki suggested some improved crowdsourcing methods for Reddit.
Newspapers as conservative political tool: Following up on an initial LA Weekly report a month ago, The New York Times reported that the politically influential conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch are considering buying the eight newspapers of the recently bankrupt Tribune Co., including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun. The move would be an explicitly political one, the Times reported, aimed at supplementing the Kochs’ political organizing by giving conservative causes a more prominent mainstream voice.
The Kochs don’t currently own any traditional media properties, though as the Columbia Journalism Review reported, they’re the top donors to the nonprofit group that funds the state government-focused Watchdog.org sites, which CJR profiled. In a strong analysis of the possible deal, the Lab’s Ken Doctor also looked at U-T San Diego as a cautionary tale of ideological ownership. The Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson said a straw poll of L.A. Times journalists revealed many of them planned to leave if the Kochs took over. (The Post’s Steve Pearlstein urged them to do just that.) Meyerson cautioned the Tribune Co.’s board not to see a sale to the Kochs as a purely financial move, but as a political move with potentially disastrous implications.
Forbes’ Tim Worstall argued that the potential political influence of Koch-owned newspapers was being overstated, however, because newspapers’ political views are inevitably determined by those of their audience. “Proprietors do not mould the views of the readers. They chase them instead,” he wrote. The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta made a similar point, saying that big cities make their papers liberal, not the other way around. Meanwhile, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias (a liberal himself) saw Koch-owned major papers as a possible boon for the country, as a way to improve the anemic state of conservative journalism.
Leadership style and sexism at the Times: Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, was the subject of a scathing feature by Dylan Byers of Politico based on anonymous quotes from staffers who characterized her leadership style as difficult and demanding. Tom McGeveran of Capital New York provided much of context and history that was missing in Byers’ piece, describing some of the history of Times editors’ perceptions within the newsroom and recent office politics there.
The backlash to the story was fierce. As Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon noted, not only was the case Byers and his sources made pretty thin, but it also reeked of sexism toward the Times’ first female top editor. Times reporter Brian Stelter said the piece didn’t ring true to him, Slate’s Hanna Rosin pointed out that while many top executives, especially in newsrooms, are difficult to work with, we’re often quite willing to see past that when they’re men. (She also got Abramson’s charmingly nonplussed reaction via email.)
Former GOOD editor Ann Friedman illustrated how the story might have been written if Abramson was a man, while former Guardian digital editor Emily Bell lamented the deep-seated sexism within journalism, where “a woman’s character traits are central to a critique of she does the job. Men, who are equally awful in just as many ways, are judged more on output and success.” Byers issued a reply to Bell’s critique, arguing that Abramson shouldn’t be immune to personal criticism simply because she’s female. He also issued another broader defense of his reporting as well.
The AP’s Twitter hack: We had more problems with misinformation on social media early this week, when the AP’s Twitter account was hacked and a tweet about explosions in the White House was posted, causing stocks to momentarily plummet. In the aftermath, Wired’s Mat Honan reported that Twitter is working on two-step authentification, which requires to have not just a password, but a previously registered device. VentureBeat’s Meghan Kelly explained, though, that two-step authentification wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the AP’s hack, and National Journal’s Brian Fung said the blame for this is on the AP, not Twitter.
Both Dan Gillmor at The Guardian and David Cohn of Circa drew the same lesson from the incident: Journalists need to practice a slower approach regarding information from social media, even if it’s from trustworthy organizations like the AP. The Committee to Protect Journalists also provided some tips for journalists and news orgs that get their accounts hacked.
Reading roundup: There was actually quite a bit of media news this week even beyond the big stories outlined so far. Here’s a quick sampling:
— The New York Times Co. issued its quarterly earnings report, with a drop in income fueled by a double-digit drop in print ad revenue. The company will also roll out lower-priced Times subscriptions, as well as a higher-priced “extras” package and more conferences, games, and e-commerce. Media analyst Ken Doctor has a good, quick breakdown of the news, and Quartz noted the slower growth of the Times’ paywall, while the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum said we shouldn’t read too deeply into that.
— After five months without an ombudsman, ESPN has hired the successor to Poynter at the position — longtime sports journalist (and ESPN critic) Robert Lipsyte. The Gawker sports blog Deadspin was excited about the move, and Lipsyte talked to The New Republic, Poynter, and The Nation about the gig. Notably, he’s taking The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan as his inspiration for a web-friendly style.
— Reuters fired its deputy social media editor, Matthew Keys, this week, a month after he was charged with helping Anonymous hack into news websites in 2010. He was apparently fired not for the charges, but for his tweeting of the Boston news last week, as The Atlantic Wire explained. Keys gave his account of the firing on his Tumblr.
— Twitter has been busy lately as it prepares for a potential IPO, hiring its first data editor, announcing a video partnership with BBC America, and forming a partnership with one of the largest ad buyers on TV.
Photo of Los Angeles Times building by jpellgen used under a Creative Commons license.