Early Friday morning, I was following the news out of Boston on Twitter, as so many were. A story that had begun as a police officer being gunned down at MIT was growing seemingly every other minute. First, someone sped from the scene and became engaged in a gun battle in Watertown, Massachusetts. Then, the gun battle turned into a manhunt. And then came the biggest news of all: The suspects in the MIT shooting and the gun battle were the suspects the FBI had identified as being wanted for questioning in connection to the Boston Marathon bombings half a day earlier. It was like something out of a paperback thriller one might buy in an airport bookstore, the sort of thing that might be seen as preposterous in fiction, particularly once the police legally shut down the entire city of Boston in an attempt to capture one man. (The other suspect had died from wounds incurred in the aforementioned shootout.)
In the middle of all of this came news that seemed almost too fascinating to be true, except it had to be: The police had named two suspects on the scanner. People had heard them. One of those two men was an Ivy League college student who had gone missing a month earlier, leaving his phone and wallet behind in his apartment. (I won’t repeat his name here for reasons that will soon become obvious.) The idea that this person could drop off the grid—without raising any red flags about being the sort of person who would bomb a major sporting event—took the whole story to another level. It was the twist you’d never believe in the movie but had to believe in reality. And, even better, the kid had been identified earlier that day by a variety of Internet social-gathering sites, most notably Reddit, which had become convinced the missing man was one and the same with the so-called “Suspect #2” or the “white hat man.” The news swirled around Twitter, becoming confirmed as “fact”—as much as anything ever is on the Internet—before anybody really dug in and figured out what was going on.
The problem was that none of it was true. So far as anyone can tell, the missing man’s name was never mentioned on the scanner. When the two actual suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were found, they weren’t missing college students. They were a couple of brothers and legal immigrants—Dzhokhar was a U.S. citizen, even—who had come to the country as children, brought by parents who were fleeing political persecution in Kyrgyzstan. They were, of all things, Chechen in origin, something that virtually no one predicted. And as the story wound down, with Dzhokhar being apprehended after hiding out in a boat for most of the day, the missing man’s name became a footnote. Reddit, notably and thankfully, apologized for the misinformation that swirled around the Internet, but the damage is still done. For the family searching for this man and for this man himself, should he ever resurface, his name is now forever linked to something he had nothing to do with, even if it only happened for a few hours.
The hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers became an interesting test case in the successes and failures of the ways we consume our news. TV, print, and Internet media conglomerates all had major, notable failures, and they all stem from the fact that in a case like this, where there is no obvious suspect and the public longs for someone to blame, there will always be an army of people looking for a signal in the noise. The central tension in reporting the news has always been between getting the information quickly and getting the information accurately. The high-profile burns always involve news outlets that push too quickly and report bad information, but the only time anyone applauds a news organization that holds out on “confirmed” information, it’s when that news organization turns out to be right for withholding it. Those who end up being wrong just look too cautious, as if they’re getting too easily beaten.
I began my career working on the copy desks of two major metropolitan newspapers, and I’ve come to have an inherent trust of hardworking local journalists, who too often get lumped in with their national counterparts. Too many news consumers are under the impression that mainstream media works like a slower version of Twitter, as if a reporter hears a bit of information, then just writes it down without fact-checking or editing. In fact, the best news organizations—too few of them nowadays—employ multiple levels of security checks, from upper-management personnel whose names are on the line if something goes wrong, to source editors who mercilessly grill their reporters and make sure everything adds up, to copy editors who represent a last line of defense against libelous or inaccurate material. When the system works well, the work behind the reporter becomes invisible, and great stories are broken. When it falls apart, it represents failure on multiple levels, often with tragic consequences. (Look no further than the New York Times’ reporting failures in the buildup to the Iraq War to see a news organization breaking down on multiple levels.) Increasingly, that system of checks and balances doesn’t exist anymore, and that’s leading to greater and greater problems.
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Throughout the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings—and particularly as CNN spent the past week flailing about as it detailed the search for a suspect—there seemed to be an unstated competition between Internet-based services like Twitter and Reddit and the cable news channels. The idea was that as the cable news channels attempted to fill space with fatuous blather, online was where one could get the real story, from either local Boston reporters working the police beat or quick-witted amateur gumshoes combing through footage of the marathon finish line pre-bombing. This in some ways explains why the idea of the missing man being one of the bombers struck such a chord: It was the ultimate vindication of the online-sleuth method, no matter how many other innocent people had been implicated.
Of course, everyone ended up with egg on their faces. The tools that make both TV and Internet news so powerful blew up in the face of a crime that could only be solved via the usual diligent investigative work. This underlined more than ever that 24-hour cable news and social media-driven Internet journalism/investigations are all too often the exact same thing: an attempt to throw information out into a void to see what will happen next.
There are certain instances that are well-suited to both approaches. The morning after the authorities identified the Tsarnaevs and went hunting after the younger of the two brothers, the cable news networks were at their best as they cut between footage of the manhunt in Boston, the aftermath of a devastating explosion in a small town in Texas, flooding in Chicago, and all manner of other stories. When there’s enough news happening right now, TV is still the best way to cut between multiple stories. (Even the much-maligned Fox News did a decent job, minimizing the amount of time spent on the network’s asinine morning show, Fox & Friends.) And during the alleged shootout between the police and the suspected Tsarnaev brothers, Twitter became a vital source of you-are-there information, as residents of Watertown talked about what they’d heard and seen outside of their homes, right down to the guy who had a bullet pass through his wall. The two beasts even fed each other, with local tweeters ending up on cable stations and Twitter diligently relaying reports from the cable news stations out to those who could not watch while stranded at the office.
The problem is fairly obvious: The day has 24 hours, and there’s not always something going on that either cable news or Twitter would care about. So that means the story becomes filled with meta-chatter that’s as much about how the story is being covered (usually with notes of self-congratulation) as it is about what’s actually happening. But not every story requires immediacy, and not every story requires crowd-sourcing. They’re great tools in certain occasions—major disasters for the former, international news stories that receive shamefully little reporting in U.S. media for the latter—but they also tend to lead said news sources to treat every problem as if it can only be solved via immediacy or crowd-sourcing. It’s the old proverb about how every problem looks like a nail to the hammer.
Both cable networks and Internet sites chase obscure bits of information down rabbit trails and toss up all sorts of wrong information. It’s one thing when it happens in the midst of a breaking story; most news consumers know that things get garbled as news is coming out fast and furious, and are willing to forgive news sources that are diligent about updating previously bad information. (The NBC News organization generally came out of this situation looking “the best” in terms of the major television news groups, and even it reported for quite some time early Friday morning that the Tsarnaevs had only been in the U.S. for a year, before backtracking and saying they were American citizens who had been in the U.S. for a decade.) The problem comes when news organizations—or collective groups of Internet users who wish to function as a news or investigative body—put being first ahead of being accurate, which leads to bad information at best and impugning the names of innocent people at worst. (Ironically enough, neither cable news nor Internet sites committed the worst journalistic sin of the coverage. That honor goes to the New York Post, which ran with a cover depicting two innocent people as suspects in the bombing and deserves an ocean of libel suits.)
Everybody understands this is a problem. And it would be one thing if anybody had a solution, but one simply doesn’t exist. The news cycle has been 24 hours for decades now, but it’s gotten faster and faster with each new iteration. Breaking news has become deeply broken, to the point where it sometimes seems as if the only way to get the most of a story is to wait five years for the inevitable book of events. In fact, ask yourself this: It might have been more visceral and exciting to follow the chase after the bombing suspects Friday night via Twitter or Reddit, but was anyone who woke the next morning and checked out the news at that point better or worse informed about the night’s events? Breaking news in the 24-hour news cycle involves filling a giant maw, and no matter the excuses of TV or Internet sources—usually couching things via a “some people are saying” statement for the former, or suggesting that no one’s trying to be definitive for the latter—it all ends up seeming like reality as performance art.
The obvious answer would seem to be to place more trust in “slower” media, but such outlets—newspapers and local TV and radio stations—are circling the drain or attempting to reinvent themselves as 24-hour news organizations, thus entering the breaking-news game. The fact of the matter is that following breaking news is exciting. It fills the need for human information, never mind the fact that cable networks seem to have to walk back every other story, or that Internet crowd-sourcers seem to have learned everything they know about the journalistic method from watching movies about newspaper reporters.
The simple truth is that good news takes time. Sorting through scanner chatter takes training. Combing through leads or understanding a police investigation requires cultivating sources and getting to know people at the local police department or in neighborhoods around town. Understanding something like the complex relationship of Chechnya to the rest of the world—or why the Tsarnaev brothers’ parents might have fled Kyrgyzstan in the first place—requires diligent research and knowing just the right experts to ask. Getting things right takes that whole team in the newsroom—including the editors behind the reporter, who make sure the reporter gets things right, that the news is as accurate as possible—for the betterment of both the journalists and their consumers.
News can’t be committed by simply swooping in and dive-bombing an area with assets, whether paid for or crowd-sourced. News is painstakingly constructed, built from the ground up with an eye toward getting the best possible account. That takes time, though, and if there’s one thing we don’t have in this world anymore, it’s time. At its best, journalism is a calling, a public service that’s also a great commodity. Too often anymore, however, “the news” becomes a thing that happens, before everybody moves on to something else, unaware of the rubble in their wake.