The Boston bombing and subsequent manhunt was in many ways the first big interactive news story. It wasn’t the first big event to be covered obsessively on social media, but it was the first big event where millions of people became part of the story themselves. Some did so through choice, combing through photographs on Reddit or 4chan; others simply happened to be in Boston and saw their public lives, as broadcast to the world on social media, become part of the story just by dint of where they were.
The result was a veritable deluge of streams, in a world where the news has become a hard-to-navigate rapids at the best of times. For anybody who wanted to stay on top of what was happening without drowning in noise, experience and level-headedness were invaluable, and were displayed most prominently by Pete Williams of NBC.
But while Williams was the most visible of the people who got it right, there were many others, mostly unsung, working at places like the NYT. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, rightly praises its editors for “staying away from unconfirmed reports” and treating with suspicion anything coming from “unnamed law enforcement sources”.
In the tradition of journalistic oxpeckers everywhere, Sullivan concludes that the NYT’s “reporting from Boston all week was fast, deep and accurate”. Which is the truth, but it’s not the whole truth: I’m quite sure that a very large part of the credit should go to the editors in New York, rather than the reporters in Boston. In a story this sprawling, no one reporter, and no one law-enforcement source, can possibly see anything approaching the big picture; it falls to the editors to take the various streams of information coming into the newsroom, many of which outright contradicted each other, and to weave them into a coherent and accurate whole.
Anybody who was on Twitter over the past week knows how hard that job was. It’s an exercise in massively multivariate real-time Bayesian analysis: as the news streams in from multiple sources over the course of the day and night, every new piece of information has to be analyzed in light of everything else that’s already known, or thought to be known. A clear on-the-record statement from the governor can be assumed to be perfectly reliable, but just about nothing else can be — not even the reporting of your own employees, who can easily make good-faith errors during such an extended and chaotic story. Sleep deprivation alone can account for that.
An experienced editor will use her hard-earned judgment to weigh the relative reliability of all the different sources of information. Some people added enormous value on Twitter — Seth Mnookin, for instance, had fewer than 7,000 followers on Sunday, and more than 40,000 by the end of the week, for good reason. Others, like Williams, proved their reliability on television, even as their rivals at other channels were reporting things which turned out to be false.
There’s an art to working out where to find fast and reliable information, and to judging new information in light of old information, and to judging old information in light of new information. And there’s an art to synthesizing everything you know, from hundreds of different sources, into a single coherent narrative. It’s not easy, it’s not a skill that most people have, and it’s precisely where news organizations add value.
But in this particular case, as Noah Brier points out in a post headlined “Being Part of the Story”, it’s something that millions of people ended up attempting to do, on the fly, anyway:
Everyone wanted to be involved in “the hunt,” whether it was on Twitter and Google for information about the suspected bomber, on the TV where reporters were literally chasing these guys around, or the police who were battling these two young men on a suburban street. Watching the new tweets pop up I got a sense that the content didn’t matter as much as the feeling of being involved, the thrill of the hunt if you will. As Wasik notes, we’ve entered an age where how things spread through culture is more interesting than the content itself.
The crowdsourced hunt was, in the end, unambiguously counterproductive: it hurt much more than it helped. But it wasn’t just Redditors and hive minds which got caught up in this particular mindset. If you look at the missteps of outlets like the New York Post and CNN, it’s easy to see them in this light — breathlessly passing on every new tidbit of information, rather than taking their function as editors and filters as seriously as they should have done.