Marathon bombing leaves cracks in the “new news ecosystem”

When news of the Boston Marathon bombing broke on Monday my reaction was worthy of one of B.F Skinner’s pigeons in a Skinner box: I wanted to press the lever that delivered a newspaper – one of those thrilling extras we used to put out when big news broke in the morning back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

But since nobody puts extras out anymore – just 10 or so years after my former employer, the Boston Herald, printed its last, the notion already seems as quaint – and as dead – as the paperboy – I did what I thought was the next best thing: I went to the Boston papers’ websites: bostonherald.com and boston.com. The Herald’s website was accessible, but clearly the staff was scrambling. A half-hour after the first bomb went off at 2:50, a breaking news banner led to a jumbled, four-paragraph story. The Globe’s website had crashed entirely.

As I looked up, stunned, a classmate had jumped onto Twitter, and began reading off posts that unfolded like a series of news bulletins, hundreds pouring in every minute, providing everything that the newspaper sites could not.

I’m afraid I sound like a naïf here, but I’m really not. I’m an old-media guy by training and experience for sure, but I’ve been on Twitter for a couple of years. I understand the role it has played in breaking-news stories since the earthquake in China in 2009 and especially during the Arab spring that bloomed a year later. I could even pick Andy Carvin out of a crowd. But this was the first time I saw its incredible power to report a story in which I was personally invested – and how lame it made big media look moment by moment. For me, things have changed, and for the better.

Of course, no good in the new-media world is unalloyed. As usual, Twitter was distinguished in part by the amount of bad information it put out along the way. As Slate’s Jeremy Stahl later said, if newspapers provide what Washington Post Publisher Philip L. Graham called “the first rough draft of history,” then Twitter “is the first rough draft of journalism.” And, as anyone who has ever produced one knows, first drafts are messy.

But so what? In this, Twitter and other social media outlets were hardly alone. Perhaps in an effort to keep up with the speed of developments on social media, old-media outlets, ranging from CNN to Fox, from the Globe itself to the New York Post, made egregious errors along the way that they were forced to walk back, often grudgingly. Some of the mistakes were never corrected. As radio and TV reporters have known for decades, the immediacy/accuracy ratio is thornier than any quadratic equation.

But here’s where it gets weird. Not content merely to provide breaking-news developments, social media denizens began to dabble in press criticism, pointing out the mainstream media’s mistakes with all the gleeful high-school snark we have come to expect from the medium. One commentator went so far as to celebrate social media’s new role as ombudsman. Excuse me, but it’s hard to imagine the Times’ Margaret Sullivan pointing out other outlets’ mistakes without taking note of those made by her own. The other way around is more often the case, in fact.

This phenomenon reached the Everest of absurdity on Reddit, where would-be critics of mainstream journalism raged about the New York Post’s decision to splash with a photo of two men (not the brothers later ID’d as the bombers) allegedly sought for questioning by investigators, charging that the paper had unfairly stigmatized, and possibly even libeled, the pair. Flash forward a day, and posters to Reddit named as a suspect a Brown University student who almost assuredly had nothing to do with the blast. What’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture is that both social media and the mainstream media need to understand their new roles in this part of what Jeff Jarvis has called the “new news ecosystem.” Social media gives us a speedy, crowdsourced first draft of breaking news. As such, errors are to be expected, although restraint and discretion about what to post and re-post should be exercised, as Carvin does so well.

The mainstream media provides the context, analysis, depth and breadth that social media by definition cannot provide. If it wishes to retain the credibility that is one of its natural advantages, the mainstream media needs to be far more careful about competing with social media for immediacy, because errors are more apparent when they’re frozen in print or on tape, making it tougher for the mainstream to walk back an error.

For their part, social media natives need to understand that they are part of an ecosystem that includes mainstream media. Where would social media be, for example, without the reporting of the mainstream to post? Instead of behaving like a high-school clique bent on ridiculing the errors of old-media outlets, they need to grow up, put aside the snark and self-righteousness, and strive to improve at doing what they do best. To do otherwise is to display all the intelligence of a pigeon in a Skinner box.