With every corner we turn, a new online platform for sharing information is becoming available. From Facebook to Twitter to Reddit to Instagram to personal blogs, being a part-time journalist is a job citizens all over the world today are taking on. Among the thousands of professional news-reporters, billions of people simply interested or involved in the current news stories are exposing us to their own unique content. A Reuter’s Blog by Feliz Salmon suggests that in many ways, the bombing at the Boston Marathon “represented the first fully interactive news story” and is the perfect example of the power social media platforms and citizen journalism has on news reporting today.
Within a few hours of the bombing, Twitter was dominated by the hashtags #bostonmarathon, #bostonbombing, and #bostonstrong. In their participatory roles as “gatewatchers” or curators of information, individuals shared information from others and the rate of retweeting went from 3 and 5 retweets per tweet before the bombing to 224 retweets per tweet following the tragedy. Facebook was flooded with empathetic statuses and photos linking to news articles. People all over the world were questioning, sharing, reacting, and reporting on the news event by writing personal stories and joining in on the global dialogue surrounding the bombing crisis. As we were talking about in class, the Internet’s capacity for audience-interactive news reporting is not without both positive and negative consequences, however.
Advantageously, the diversity of perspectives and viewpoints shared during the bombing crisis allowed it to be seen through a variety of different lenses. iPhones and personal cameras enabled individuals to disseminate information that news crews with heavy equipment were unable to capture. In some cases, the FBI heavily relied on the citizens as they were often able to capture photos of the event and share in-depth stories that professional news reporters did not have access to. Instead of a news reporter sharing an interview with a witness, witnesses were sharing their stories online first hand. One brilliant example of citizen participation in news reporting was the collaboration between Watertown community members and one of the oldest news sources, the police. The citizens listened diligently to information released on the police scanner and live-tweeted exactly what they heard. This allowed the public to receive information hours ahead of the television networks and eliminated the need for these networks altogether. Each occurrence in the Boston Marathon bombing was documented by someone who was tweeting or sharing the information through another social media website. I found an article that examines one example of a compilation of 26 tweets that “broke the news” about the Boston bombing. You can find the article here! While this influx of information was seen in many ways as beneficial to the public, the “information-overload” on these media platforms hinder our ability to clearly define the lines of fact and fiction.
Much of the professional news information distributed online was riddled with misinformation due to the “get it here first” mentality. Journalists and news networks released information that was inadequately researched in order to be able to say “you heard it here first!” The expediency of publishing information online as a result of current technology caused more harm than help in this situation. The New York Times, in its effort to sell their newspapers and get website views, jumped to conclusions about the suspects being terrorists. Information reported by this large news outlet was copied and launched in smaller-scale newspapers and investigative reporting sites, even though much of the information was inaccurate. This caused a domino effect of misinformation, leading to the public’s inability to respond appropriately to the event. These mainstream media failures were memorialized by citizens via Twitter with the hashtags #CNNFail and #NYTfail. In this case, it’s clear that the “Gatekeeping” (or filtering of information) in professional news reporting fell short during the Boston Marathon bombing.
Citizens recognized the under-performance of the mainstream media outlets and stepped in to do their own “investigative journalism”. While this event demonstrated the value of citizen reporting, it also revealed the risks. Citizens too had shortcomings in the accuracy of the information they released online. For example, Reddit users misidentified the second suspect as a Brown University student named Sunil Tripathi who had gone missing two weeks before the bombing. Internet users posted messages suggesting the speculations on the Facebook page Tripathi’s parents used to raise awareness about their missing son. This illegitimate allegation resulted in a large amount of unnecessary pain for the family. A myriad of hoax videos and conspiracy articles were also released by “prosumers” (the audience who has gone from simply “consumers” of information to “producers” of information) which caused confusion and misguidance among community members who were attempting to discover the truth.
The media coverage surrounding the Boston bombing is only one example of the participatory culture of the web and its advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps this leads us to question as a society, “how is the definition of journalism changing?” “Has the internet inhibited or advanced our knowledge of events as a public?” We can be sure, however, that when examining the effect social media has on informing the public, we can conclude that news reporters and citizen journalists cannot always be trusted to release a quality of work that is diligent and accurate–especially in times of crisis.