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.
Which brings me to an important and quite wrong essay from Ben Smith, the editor of BuzzFeed, and his colleague John Herrman.
Under the old rules, a responsible citizen passed any potential bit of news he could find on to the professionals. The professionals collected tips, corroborated them, published the ones that panned out. Reporters could protect their readers from bad information — indeed, for reporters, the story was defined largely by what was kept from the public…
Now we should assume our readers and viewers see virtually everything that we see. We can no longer decide which rumors and scraps of information should be dignified with publication — a sufficiently compelling scrap of information, be it a picture of a man with a black backpack or an anonymous, single-sentence Reddit post from the scene of the crime, will become news on that merit alone…
The media’s new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see — not to ignore it. A Reddit post seen by millions without context is worse for the story, and the public, and to the mission of reporting than the same post in a helpful and informed context seen by many more. Reporting is no longer a question of whether or not to dignify new and questionable information with attention — it’s about predicting which of it will influence the story, and explaining, debunking, or contextualizing it the best we can. That is, incidentally, what our readers want.
It’s possible that Smith and Herrman are right that their readers are clamoring for BuzzFeed to explain, debunk, and contextualize the constant stream of noise and misinformation coming from Reddit and Twitter. But I suspect that if there is such a clamor, it’s coming from a vocal minority. For one thing, only a minority of BuzzFeed’s visitors come for hard news at all. And of those who do, only a minority of them care very much what BuzzFeed’s interpretation is of the material they’re reading on Reddit and Twitter. Finally, by their nature, Reddit and Twitter are going to be presenting a different narrative to each of their millions of users: what BuzzFeed’s editors are seeing on those platforms is not going to be the same thing that BuzzFeed’s readers are seeing.
It’s undoubtedly true that in the age of social media, it’s become very easy for anybody to peer behind the news curtain and see the chaotic raw material from which it is produced. But that in no way weakens the onus on responsible and experienced news editors to filter that material and form it into a fast, deep and accurate report. Indeed, the value added by those editors has never been more obvious than it is in situations like this one.
Smith and Herrman are absolutely wrong that a compelling yet false factoid, being shared willy-nilly across various social-media platforms, “will become news on that merit alone”. News is something true and important and relevant; it is not, and should never be, misinformation. Neither is it “whatever our readers happen to be finding on the internet”. Smith and Herrman are essentially taking a hugely important story, here, and reducing it to the status of covering a viral meme: the Gangnamization of terror. I have no problem with news stories covering viral sensations, but they’re what you do after you cover the important stuff. They’re not the important stuff themselves.