Social media skepticism about breaking news: As has become the norm following large-scale tragedies, the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday that killed two and injured more than a hundred sparked a lively discussion about social media, journalism, and the value of simply getting information right during crisis situations. The attacks spurred some remarkable journalism — most notably by the Boston Globe and Boston Herald — but it also launched a mess of misinformation and hasty conclusions. We’ll cover the misinformation on social media first, then get to the traditional media accuracy issues.
Guardian journalist Simon Ricketts aptly documented many of the falsehoods floating around Twitter after the bombing, arguing that Twitter has become more unwieldy during crises as so many people tweet out of a need to “feel involved, concerned, part of the conversation.” Mathew Ingram of paidContent said that this is the way news flows now, for better or worse, and that it’s better to ask journalists to verify information than the platforms themselves.
Here at the Lab, Hong Qu argued that it’s a mistake to pit journalistic norms against social media behavior, because the two complement each other. Poynter’s Jason Fry wrote a thoughtful post on how news orgs can bridge those two domains, proposing that while having reporters “on the ground” is still the core of covering breaking news, they should also have an “eye in the sky” gathering, filtering, and making judgments about a wide range of information, then presenting the best of it to readers. News orgs have long had this role internally during big breaking stories, he said, but it’s now shifted to an external one.
Others saw more restraint on Twitter this time around than during past tragedies. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple took note of all the Twitter users urging caution about believing and disseminating information, and PandoDaily’s David Holmes called the greater skepticism a small step in the right direction as more circumspect news orgs separate themselves from more irresponsible ones. Journalism prof Dan Gillmor wondered if we’re starting to see a “slow news” mentality start to catch on.
Slate’s Jeremy Stahl and 10,000 Words’ Karen Fratti both offered helpful guides for journalists on how to tweet during a tragedy — don’t pass on speculation, don’t shame others for doing so, don’t try to score political points, don’t let any tone-deaf scheduled or off-topic posts get through. Wired’s Mat Honan had good advice for all of us on social media during times like that: Resist the urge to chime in with me-too tweets and simply stay silent unless you have something truly meaningful to say.
CNN and the New York Post’s prominent failures: Traditional media sources were hardly blameless in reporting this story, either. Their worst day was Wednesday, when several news orgs, led by CNN, reported that an arrest had been made in the case, only to be refuted by law enforcement officials (and other news orgs) later in the day. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon and Mallary Jean Tenore put together a good Storify documenting the confusion on Twitter, and Salon’s Daniel D’Addario summarized CNN’s misinformation on Twitter, while Talking Points Memo chronicled its about-face on the air. Hilary Sargent of Chartgirl explained who reported what about an arrest in chart form, and Jon Stewart ripped CNN on Wednesday night.
The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone gave some explanation as to how CNN might have screwed up the story — possibly misinterpreting a source’s “got him” to mean someone had been arrested, rather than simply ID’d as a suspect. And Erik Wemple of The Washington Post noted that CNN’s breakdown was as much reporting that a “dark-skinned man” had been arrested as it was reporting the arrest in the first place. On the other end of the spectrum, at least one organization, Breaking News, the social media-oriented breaking news operation owned by NBC News, explained how it balances speed with verification, then fleshed it out with an example illustrating why they decided to hold off on the arrest story.
The other news org that performed particularly poorly on this story was the New York Post, which reported that there were at least 12 people killed in the bombings, while the number of confirmed deaths (which virtually every other news org reported correctly) turned out to be just three. Gawker’s Tom Scocca documented the Post’s adherence to its faulty information despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Then, on Thursday, it identified two men as possible suspects that were not, in fact, suspects — as Gawker’s Max Read pointed out, a relatively simple problem to clear up, had it tried.
Poynter’s Craig Silverman lamented the press’s unwillingness to own up to its major reporting errors, while Winston Ross and Brian Ries of The Daily Beast and Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic drew critical attention to Reddit and other Internet users’ role in misidentifying potential suspects. Slate’s Will Oremus, on the other hand, argued that the Redditors do have a conscience, maybe moreso than several media outlets.
A few other angles to mention: As copy editor Charles Apple pointed out, the New York Daily News doctored a photo of the blasts to make an injury appear less gruesome, with a spokesman telling the Post’s Wemple that “Frankly, I think everybody in the media should have been this sensitive.” The New York Observer reported on another graphic photo that was prompting mixed decisions over whether and how to run. Meanwhile, Reuters’ Jack Shafer pointed out that coverage of this event followed the disaster-journalism formula to a T, and Poynter’s Al Tompkins provided a great basic guide to reporting the aftermath of a disaster.
Pulitzer underdogs and shutouts: The Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday afternoon (just minutes before the Boston bombing, actually), and many of the winners were the usual array of national giants like The New York Times (which won four awards) and strong regional newspapers. There was one small web-based organization that caught people’s attention, though — InsideClimate News, which won the national reporting Pulitzer for its work on lax oil pipeline regulation.
As Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo noted Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler saying, InsideClimate News is probably the least well-known news org ever to win a Pulitzer. It may also be the smallest: It has just seven full-time employees, and most of them don’t work in the same office. The New York Times’ Brian Stelter and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici both profiled the six-year-old site, detailing its nonprofit structure and its rise from its mostly derivative early journalism to more in-depth work now. Bercovici noted their key to doing top-notch work with such a small staff is simple — they focus on just one thing, 24/7. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Curtis Brainard explored its reporting on the oil pipeline story in particular.
Another notable Pulitzer was the Times’ win in feature writing for its much-acclaimed “Snow Fall” multimedia feature. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon asked a few critical questions about the Pulitzers in general, including one about the fact that The Wall Street Journal hasn’t won for its reporting since Rupert Murdoch took over in 2007. (It did win for commentary this year.) Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review tied the Journal’s Pulitzer drought to Murdoch’s antipathy toward longform stories and any sort of higher calling for its journalism. “This is about creating a healthy news culture with the public interest at its core and having everything else radiate out from that. Do that, and the Pulitzers will take care of themselves,” he wrote.
The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal wondered if the Journal’s move away from long stories was more a product of its paywall than anything, while fellow CJR writer Ryan Chittum countered that argument. Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor looked at the connection between paywalls and the type of newsroom investment that leads to Pulitzer-winning journalism.
Joining forces in longform publishing: Medium, the not-a-microblog-not-quite-a-blog publishing platform run by Evan Williams (of Blogger and Twitter fame), announced it was buying Matter, a longform journalism site focusing on science and technology. Matter was launched last year with $140,000 through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. It publishes one in-depth story a month available to subscribers who pay 99 cents a month.
The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss and Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon have some background on the acquisition — Matter and Medium both say not much will change with the site, other than some cross-posting. PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie interviewed Matter co-founder Jim Giles about its creative efforts to sell individual stories, and Reuters’ Felix Salmon expressed his optimism that the pairing will work well.
Reading roundup: This week was dominated by the terrible news from Boston (and, to a lesser extent, the terrible news from Texas), but there were a few other media stories going on elsewhere:
— At Poynter, Tom Rosenstiel wrote a smart post on the need to reorient the conversation about journalism education by looking at other experiments beyond the “teaching hospital” model. Social media manager and grad student Patrick Thornton urged journalism students to take risks and innovate while they’re involved in college media, rather than seeing it as “a minor league for professional news organizations.” And Forbes’ Lewis DVorkin gave some useful information in his recounting of a Q&A session with Mississippi journalism students.
— The Guardian launched a free app called GuardianWitness that would allow users to send video, photos, and text straight to the paper’s content management system. The Next Web’s Paul Sawers had a good explanation of what it looks like and what it might mean.
— Felix Gillette wrote an illuminating feature for Bloomberg Businessweek on Rupert Murdoch’s ability to skate away from News Corp.’s phone hacking scandal cleanly.
— Finally, two thoughtful pieces on possible paths forward through journalism’s present state: Reuters’ Reg Chua on the role of stories in making sense of data, and here at the Lab, Nicco Mele and John Wihbey discussed reorienting within news orgs to focus on individual talent and smaller, more passionate audiences.
Marathon photo by Joe Spurr used under a Creative Commons license.